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Are We Sure 10,000 Hours of Practice Makes Perfect?

were talking about practice

Since best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the theory in his wildly successful book Outliers, the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something has been pretty much taken for granted, even going so far as to be referenced in a Justin Bieber country music collaboration.

According to Gladwell, all of the most successful people, from The Beatles to Bill Gates, have one thing in common: starting from a young age, they’ve put a ton of time into deliberately practicing the thing they are great at. Basically, it’s a pop-science version of the classic paradigm “practice makes perfect.”

So let’s break 10,000 hours of practice down.

Where does this magical number come from? Well, Gladwell cites a 1993 study by Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer that showed that the most accomplished violin students at a Berlin music academy had put in an average of 10,000 hours of violin practice by the time they turned 20. 

But – the keyword here is average. That means that some students had to put in 25,000 hours, while others may be only put in 1,000 or 2,000. 

Beyond that, the study (and the 10,000-hour rule in general), focuses on quantity over quality. Gladwell emphasizes the idea of deliberate practice but, unfortunately, it’s not really clear what deliberate means. Let’s say I’m working toward becoming great at handstands. Do 10,000 hours of kicking up and down over and over again count? What if I’m spending that time hungry and sleep-deprived? It might be deliberate practice, but is it quality? If, instead, I did 4,000 hours of practice with proper fuel and rest, would I maybe do better?

Ultimately, the question is impossible to answer. There’s no way to know exactly what type of practice for how many hours is going to lead to what results. 

Just how many days is 10,000 hours?

But let’s address the elephant in the room… 10,000 hours of practice is a whole lot, isn’t it? To put it in perspective, that’s over 10 and a half years of working four hours a day, five days a week. Not exactly accessible to everybody. 

early morning workout

But does that mean we should all just give up? Realize we have no chance of becoming great at something if we don’t have the time, money, energy, and privilege to practice like it’s our job? To put it gently… hell no! There are plenty of other ways to get good at something.

In fact, researchers recently found that ‘deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions.’ Their simple conclusion, deliberate practice is important, but perhaps not nearly important as Gladwell popularized and Ericson, et al looked at nearly 30 years ago.

How about the Pareto principle instead?

According to this theory, 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. For example, on a rugby team, 3 of the 15 players are probably so good that they singlehandedly score 80% of the tries. Or 20% of the pea plants in your garden generate 80% of the healthy pea pods (that little gem is actually how Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto came up with his principle).

So what does this mean if you’re a casual athlete trying to stay in shape? Or a gym rat who wants to lift more but also enjoy the process? Try to identify which of your activities lead to your best results. You might be going on all sorts of different runs throughout the week, but it’s your Saturday long runs that are really helping you with your endurance. Make those efforts as deliberate as possible.

backhand grip

Or maybe you spend a bunch of time at practice working on your forehand, only to find come match time you can’t land a serve and miss every backhand. Once you figure that out, you know where to put your focus and energy. Keep doing what you enjoy, but maybe push a little harder during the 20% that’s doing most the heavy lifting. Even if it adds up to just 100 hours, it’ll be plenty of expertise for you to enjoy what you’re passionate about.