weekBy now, most Inc readers know about the 10,000 rule. It is an idea, in short and in general, theorizing that if you want to become an expert at something, a sport or talent or job, you should practice it for 10,000 hours. On a scale of 20 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, that roughly spans 10 years.

The original theory was put forth by K. Anders Ericsson, who studied elite athletes and industry experts, and was made widely popular by Malcom Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

The rule had been embraced by many, but was not without it detractors, from experts to celebrities, who spoke up against it. Even Ericsson later wrote another book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, in which he expanded his take on the rule saying that 10,000 hours of "deliberate" practice was the key, implying that one cannot just engage in an activity for 10,000 hours to become an expert. Deliberate practice involves working with other experts, receiving and using constant feedback, and a routine of continuous improvements over that time.

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the theory works, the problem is that too many people falsely believed that spending half their waking life over the next 10 years trying to master a skill or talent will find them the fame and fortune associated with those exemplified in these theories, like Tiger Woods or Magnus Carlsen. That is just not the case.

More recently, David Epstein, an investigative reporter at ProPublica, penned a book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In an interview at The Verge, Epstein emphasized that for most mortals, finding the environment where engaging in deliberate practice, what he calls "kind" environments, is very difficult. In most environments in which we work, what Epstein calls "wicked" environments, individuals do not get the feedback or have all the information needed to truly receive the benefits of practice.

"You don't know any of the rules, they're subject to change without notice at any time, and over and over," Epstein says. "Early specialization is not the best way to go."

Moreover, Epstein emphasized why the 10,000 rule may not only be false but also harmful, emphasizing that generalists, or those who have a wide variety of skills and talents, are best suited for today's complex and fast changing business environment.

Specifically, Epstein examined scientists, since they are typically the most specialized professions we can point to. Interviewing Nobel Prize winner, Andre Geim, who discussed how "it's psychologically unsettling to change what I do every five years, but that's how I make my most important discoveries."

This all does not imply that you should abandon all specialization to become a generalist, nor does it imply that you should not work hard at a specialty. It all just means that you should listen to yourself and pick a path that fits in with your interests and abilities and be open to the idea that being a generalist may not be for everyone but is an acceptable course to choose, even though that is not what have been told most of our lives.

According to Epstein, Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavioral specialist who has studied career transitions extensively, best summarizes how important it is to pursue deliberate practice not as a means of becoming an expert in a field, per se, but rather to become an expert on ourselves.  

Tests and quizzes meant to help us find our best qualities and skills actually do very little to help us find insight into ourselves. Moreover, we have to remember that we have the ability to learn and change over time, so we should be open to new experiences and change.

Ibarra's philosophy is that we need to learn who we are in practice, not in theory. Therefore the tact to take is to act and then think, not the other way as we have been taught to believe.

What do you think? Is it more important to be a specialist or a generalist? Please share your thoughts with me on Facebook.