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Is the 10,000 Hour Rule a Big Fat Myth?

A new study challenges the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is the key to greatness.
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Thanks to the runaway popularity of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, we're all familiar with "the 10,000 hour rule" and the magical properties of lots and lots of deliberate practice.

Whether he was looking at chess grandmasters, virtuoso violinists, world-class surgeons or sports stars, Gladwell found the same thing. Success was far from instant. Getting great required investing A LOT of time. How much? Roughly 10,000 hours.

"The 10,000-hour research reminds us that 'the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.' In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals," Gladwell wrote summing up the rule in the New Yorker.

It's a seductive idea. Excellence may require a mountain of hard work, according to Gladwell, but it's not mostly an accident of birth. True mastery reflects sweat and dedication not winning the genetic lottery. No wonder so many people find the idea appealing. But is it true?

Only 34 Percent?

A new study calls that into question. The research, led by Michigan State psychologist Zachary Hambrick, combed through six previous studies looking at the achievement and practice history of more than 1,000 chess players. What did the analysis reveal? Tons of practice is far from a magic bullet. In fact, hours of practice accounted for just 34 percent of chess players' eventual ability.

"We found that deliberate practice does not account for all, nearly all, or even most variance in [elite music or chess] performance," they write.

To be fair, Gladwell never said that innate talent had no role to play in achievement, but the extent to which inborn ability sways outcomes in this analysis seems much greater than the degree suggested by the 10,000 hour rule. In fact, some of study conclusions are startling for believers in the incredible importance of practice. The range of practice chess grandmasters invested in was huge, for instance. Some had as little at 832 hours of practice under their belts while others racked up over 20,000 hours. On the other hand, many intermediate players had put in vastly more than the magic 10,000 hours. A follow-up study looking at musical ability came to similar conclusions.

No Magic Numbers

The overall takeaway was clear, "some people failed to achieve the highest level even after completing substantially more than 10,000 of practice; others achieved the highest level with only relatively modest practice," reports The BPS Research Digest blog summing up the findings.

"The bottom line is that deliberate practice is necessary to account for why some people become experts in these domains and others fail to do so, but not even close to sufficient," the research team concludes. Innate talent and starting age, among other factors, seem to play a much greater role than Gladwell would have us believe.

According to the research team the findings offer a sobering reality check: "some normally functioning people may never acquire expert performance in certain domains, regardless of the amount of deliberate practice they accumulate."

What does this research mean for you if you're dreaming of greatness in whatever domain? If you think you have the chops and the drive, nothing. Keep practising. It certainly can't hurt and will almost certainly help to some degree. But it's also worth thinking seriously about whether you truly have the talent or might simply be too old for your particular pursuit (fret not, there are plenty of domains where age is a benefit). If so, greatness may be out of reach no matter how hard you practice. Save yourself A LOT of time and focus on simply enjoying your hobby without so much striving, the research suggests.

Last updated: Jul 7, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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