Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule” Doesn’t Add Up

As regular readers of this blog know, it bugs me when writers get things wrong or can’t be bothered to justify their facts. Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of references to the “10,000 hour rule” – the idea that you need to spend 10,000 hours on an activity to be successful at it.  I knew that this idea was popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, but I didn’t know where he got the idea from or what it was based on.

So imagine my surprise when I Googled “10,000 hour rule” and found this very recent letter by K. Anders Ericsson, the lead author of the study that Gladwell cites as “Exhibit A”  in support of the “rule”. Not only does Ericsson say that Gladwell “invented” the 10,000 hour rule, but he also describes Gladwell  as making a “provocative generalization to a magical number”.

Naturally, this piqued my interest. So I got Outliers from my local public library, and read Chapter 2, “The 10,000-Hour Rule”, to see how Gladwell explained 10,000 hours as the key to success.

Gladwell starts the chapter with the story of computer programmer Bill Joy, who cofounded Sun Microsystems. He then discusses Ericsson’s study, and points out that even prodigies such as Mozart had to put in a lot of developmental work to become exceptional. He says that “to become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about ten years” and follows that with “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness” (both on p. 41). After some discussion of the development of the hockey players profiled in the previous chapter, and telling more of Bill Joy’s story, he then discusses the development of the Beatles – who logged extensive hours of live shows in Hamburg, Germany, prior to becoming famous – and of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who, through school and family connections, was able to get much more practice time on computers than the average teenager in the late 1960s. Gladwell then concludes the chapter by listing the 75 richest people in history, and notes that 14 of them were born in the US in the middle of the 19th century, along with the fact that many of the people who got really rich from microcomputers were born in 1955.

So what information in the chapter supports the “10,000 hour” assertion? Well, it’s not the list of rich people.  In addition to the 14 people Gladwell focuses on, there are 16 people on the same list who got their wealth from having a title, getting an inheritance, or owning part of a family-controlled company -  which suggests that not everyone who is successful gets there by logging 10,000 hours of effort. The story of the Beatles doesn’t really have any links to the 10,000-hour number, other than that the Beatles got a lot of live performing experience early in their career – but one could wonder why, if the Beatles’ Hamburg shows were central to their success, the many other British bands who played similar residencies were also not hugely successful. Bill Gates and Bill Joy both had “special opportunities” due to when they were born, and also put in “extraordinary effort”, but the 10,000-hour figure isn’t linked to either of their accomplishments  – Gladwell even says that by his late teens Gates had “way past ten thousand hours” of experience in programming (p. 53).

The 10,000-hour figure seems to be based on two cited sources:  the study Ericsson co-authored, and a study of chess players which is cited (on p. 289) as discussing Bobby Fischer as an “exception to the rule”. The second study is in a book chapter that’s not available online, but  this later study by some of the same authors builds on the results of the study that Gladwell cites. Since one of Gladwell’s other interviewees in Outliers says “I always feel that the closer you get to the original sources, the better off you are” (p. 113), let’s look at the original sources to see what these studies actually found.

Want to be successful? Then stop staring at this picture and start racking up those hours! (Credit: Robbert van der Steeg via flickr.com, Creative Commons)

The study by Ericsson and his co-authors looked at two groups of musicians – violinists and piano players – and how practice contributed to their level of achievement. Ericsson, in the letter I linked to earlier, says: 10,000 hours was the average of the best group; indeed, most of the best musicians had accumulated substantially fewer hours of practice at age 20”. Figures 9 and 12 in the paper demonstrate this; by age 18, the best violinists and the best pianists had accumulated an average of 7,410 hours and 7,606 hours of practice time respectively.

But there’s another important component of the study’s findings that Gladwell skims over, despite it being prominently featured in the article’s title: the type of hours spent on the activity. Ericsson and his co-authors looked at three kinds of participation:

  • deliberate practice – training designed to improve performance;
  • work – any type of participation motivated by external rewards, such as pay; and,
  • play – any type of participation that was inherently enjoyable and had no explicit goal.

For both the pianists and the violinists, the amount of deliberate practice, in comparison to the amount of other types of participation in the activity, and the “optimal distribution of deliberate practice….to avoid exhaustion and burnout” (p. 400) had the strongest effects on reaching an elite level of performance. In other words, it wasn’t the accumulated number of hours that determined success, but the types of activities those hours were devoted to, and how these were allocated across time and balanced with other uses of time such as leisure and sleep.

The 10,000 hour figure is mentioned in the study in the authors’ reference to how they “examine[d] the effects of over 10,000 [hours] of deliberate practice extended over more than a decade” (p. 393-394). But they did not find that 10,000 hours was the “magic number of greatness” that Gladwell claims. They found that it was quality of time, rather than quantity, that made the most difference in levels of achievement, and that the high performers accumulated approximately 8,000 – not 10,000 – hours of practice.

The second study emphasized the importance of  “serious study” in the development of elite chess players, as compared to time spent playing in tournaments and time spent with coaches. The study cited by Gladwell looked at “a single, moderately sized sample of players” (p. 153). The study I’ve linked to above collected information from two samples: a group of 239 players with a range of skill levels, and a group of 180 players rated at or above a specific advanced level of chess expertise. The study looked at the amount of time the members of each group spent on six chess-related activities. In both groups,”cumulative hours of serious study alone…was the single most important predictor of a player’s current chess rating” (p. 161).

However, “the amount of deliberate practice time needed to become a top-level (i.e. grandmaster) player is on the order of 5000 hours” (p. 162). The authors also note that self-estimates of practice time tend to be inflated, so the actual hours of practice may be even lower than what the players reported. The players in both studies spent time in other chess-related activities as well as in “serious study” – but nothing totalling or approximating 10,000 hours of any kind of effort is reported in the study.

Both studies speculate that a ten-year time frame is needed for the development of elite performance, and that the age at which participation starts is also important (younger is better). Gladwell refers to both of these factors in passing – but neither study proves, as Gladwell states, that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”. And as far as I can tell, neither does anything else he mentions in this chapter.

If you Google “10,000-hour rule” like I did, you can find some other very thoughtful discussions of why this rule isn’t a rule, and why 10,000 hours of activity in and of itself is not a recipe for success. Gladwell states in this article that his work “is not going to be as rigorous and as carefully argued and complete as an academic work, because [it’s] popular non-fiction” (p. 398). But that doesn’t justify inferring something from your source material that isn’t there, or declaring something as a “rule” or a “magic number” without some substantive support for it.

And, sadly, by Googling “10,000-hour rule” you can also find lots of other sources blindly repeating the 10,000-hour number and exhorting people to get cracking and start logging those hours. That’s a shame for researchers such as Ericsson, who is clearly frustrated with inaccurate descriptions of his work – and it’s also a shame for people who want to get better at something they do, but are being misled about the most productive way to achieve that. No one is well served by this kind of misinformation.

RELATED POSTS:

Malcolm Gladwell`s Weak Defense of the “10,000 Hour Rule”

Another Critique of the “10,000 Hour Rule”

54 comments

  1. I don’t know how old this post is but I think you are seeing the trees of Gladwell’s argument and not the forest. The point he is making is that success is not directly proportional to innate talent or intelligence. He illustrates throughout the book that no one achieves success soley on account of their intelligence or talent but rather they were born at the right time and place and got plenty of help from people along the way. Not every genius has the luxury, stamina, support, motivation, etc., to devote 10000 hours to a chosen field. The “outlier” then is the one who is fortunate enough to somehow achieve this number through family support, etc. So, Gladwell is arguing that being a genius in of itself isn’t going to be enough. Also, don’t get to hung up on the number. 10000 hours appears to be a threshhold number- it’s obvious that some passed this number by a lot, and some can achieve it in less hours if the quality of time is improved–again which supports Gladwell’s argument anyways since he is saying its the practice and not the intelligence. Also, you once again supported Gladwell’s argument when you mentioned people who acheived success through familial inheritance, etc. Exactly! Gladwell is asserting that although someone like Bill Gates appear to be self-made on his intelligence alone, upon close examination, he too had a helluva lot of help from his affluent upbringing , etc. if anything, Gladwell gives some hope to every nobody who had average IQ but who has the passion and motivation to plug in 10000 hours of quality or non-quality practice.

    1. The date the post was made is at the top of the page. Ericsson’s comments on Gladwell were made in October of this year.

      Your comments are missing the point of the post: Gladwell claims “10,000 hours is the magic number” and the studies that he cites as proving that do not say that. Since he mentions the number throughout the book (and has continued to mention it since the book was published) he appears to be the one who is “hung up” on it.

      1. There are vertical thinkers and lateral thinkers. Those who are lateral thinking will see the value to having a “Magic Number.” It serves as a way of motivating those who otherwise would think they don’t have the innate ability, or that special “what it takes.” Well, in the case of the underdogs, everyone has access to at minimum “10,000 hours” so everyone has that chance to be successful. Vertical thinkers have difficulty seeing beyond the calculations.

    2. Gladwell argues that you can’t be an outlier if you aren’t rich. Everything in his book has something to do with being rich: for example, in chapter one, if you have more money, you can have better opportunities to practice and therefore get better.

      1. Not necessarily. His argument is the circumstances play a large role in who is successful. A lot of times that means having wealthy parents, but like he talks about at the beginning of the book, Canadian Hockey players have a fortuitous birthday to thank, and Jewish lawyers have discrimination that pushed them into the dirtier side of their profession. Personally I thought that the 10000 number was the most hopeful part of that book

  2. Your blog post has missed the point.
    The point is not that you have to put 10,000 hours in to get somewhere it’s that to become exceptional at something you have to put in 10,000 hours. Obviously someone can get rich or be famous or popular without this rule, but to master a skill, that’s when it applies.

      1. Nice article. I especially like the part about the different types of participation. I wish Gladwell could have spent a little more time on that. Also, thanks for posting the link to the original study by Ericsson.
        a couple of things I disagree with you on: According to you Ericsson says that 10 000 is the average, this means there are both less than and more than that number of hours in the study group. That’s how you get the average. It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to quote only the number that is less than 10 000. Secondly I doubt that Gladwell was proposing that you spend 10 000 at something and become successful at it as if it was a magic number. And if 10 000 is the average as you have quoted above then I’m happy to go with that. As an average. Expecting to magically become successful because I’ve put in 10 000 hours is ludicrous and it will only be my fault if I stop there and don’t do more. Same with getting a quality education. If I don’t work hard cos I expect my good quality education to deliver my success on the platter I’ll have only myself to blame. Not Gladwell or my high school teacher.

      2. Thanks for your comments! Just to clarify, Ericsson’s comment about the 10,000 hour average is in his letter; however, the averages that I quoted are directly from the tables in his 1993 paper. So, yes, there are individuals in the study who practiced 10,000 hours or more, but the averages as presented in the paper are around 7,000 hours even for the top-performing groups. I don’t have an explanation for this apparent discrepancy, and I don’t want to speak for Ericsson. B But nevertheless, Gladwell used the 1993 study as the basis for his “10,000-hour rule” and what he claimed the study says is not what the study says.

        And, as other commentators on Gladwell have pointed out, Ericsson’s 1993 study collected data from participants who already had enough musical skill to be accepted for study at a music academy. It wasn’t a study of participants who were starting from the beginning in learning a skill. So it could be questionable whether the effects of practice would be the same in the general population as it is for this already-skilled group.

  3. This is a well written and informative piece. Thanks for producing it. I try to avoid making sweeping statements without knowing their basis and I’ve refrained from believing the ’10,000 hour rule’ simply because it’s popular. I was doing some research this lunch time and Anders Ericsson came up as the originator of the idea. As I’d never heard of him, but had heard of Malcolm Gladwell I thought I’d continue my research and then I found this article.

    I appreciate you taking the time to go through the original research and what I take away from your article is that what’s important is ‘serious study time’ (i.e. time spent aiming to improve the skill) over a protracted period.

    That makes all the difference and as a development specialist who trains and coaches other people it’s very useful to know.

    Thanks. Stephen

  4. Thank you for writing this post. Very informative. I haven’t read Gladwell’s book, despite its popularity, but he seems to have inspired people to do their best to achieve their dreams. (No scientific research to back my claim, just a handful of testimonials.) Sure, the numbers may not add up, but who cares if it’s 5000, 8000, or 10000?

    Any number will do if it gets the job done: To get people to start pursuing their dreams by means of “deliberate practice” and developing the skills in what they love, every waking hour. It’s a shame, yes, that such a famous writer couldn’t get his facts straight—I wouldn’t push it and call it “manipulation” or “twisting the facts”—but the message he wished to convey, I think, is still positive. (I’m not implying that you argued otherwise, because it’s beyond the scope of your post.)

    And if “Outliers” can get people’s butts off their chairs and start running towards their goals, I don’t think I would fret over this.

  5. Great post. I’m quietly fuming over the commenters who seem to think that it’s okay if the 10,000 hours figure is inaccurate as long as it motivates people (I’d respond to them but don’t want to be the weirdo who responds to your comment 6 months after you posted it…). The point is that Gladwell says this is a fact, supported by science, and people believe him, and it isn’t a fact! And if people can just blindly misinterpret scientific studies while still keeping the authority of supposed-science, then the value of real science – and real truth – is diminished.

  6. I read the blog and several comments. Thanks for the blog, I enjoyed being challenged on how I perceive Gladwell. My comment is more of a reaction to the comments, both in agreement and disagreement. There are people that assimilate what they read, more or less at face value. That isn’t wrong. It is liberating for some people. There are people that say to themselves, Hey wait a minute, that doesn’t add up, and go deeper… equally ok and no less liberating. Then of course there are people that are “againsts.” They try and pick nits about anything that’s wildly popular-nothing can really be done to satisfy them. It sounds like Gladwell took some liberties, using empirical data to make his points. That’s what all authors do. Good, bad or indifferent, there is a point to be made and data is used to validate it. If you want scholarly research articles, with concrete and absolute facts, read those. That is written with some level of sarcasm as even academic scholarship is prone to bias and statistics shaping to validate its own points.

    1. Thanks for reading the post and for your comments. I have to disagree with you, though, about your point about “that’s what all authors do”. I understand the need for a writer to synthesize and summarize complex material, e.g. a discussion of the finer points of Ericsson’s research methodologies or choice of statistical analyses wouldn’t be part of a popular-press book like Gladwell’s. However, no matter what field they’re writing in or what audience they’re writing for, authors have a responsibility to accurately report their source material. And that’s the problem with Gladwell’s discussion of the 10,000 hour rule, that Ericsson’s findings are not accurately conveyed.

    2. I agree with you here. Would it have made a difference if it was the 7000 hour rule (by the way Ericsson himself mentions that 10 000 hours was the average they found)? Is that really all there is to it? The number? If we ALL agreed on a number (whatever the number) would we then be in support of Gladwell’s conclusions/theories/hypothesis? Or does the author disagree with the fundamental findings?
      This is from the article from Gladwell on the New Yorker defending his 10 000 hour rule:
      “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible.”
      If the number turns out to be 7 000 hours does it make this statement by Gladwell false?

      1. In that quote, as I read it, Gladwell is talking about two things: that it takes a long time to learn to do something well, and that even exceptionally talented people usually need the right support and the right circumstances to succeed. I don’t think anyone would disagree with either of those ideas. But note that Gladwell is sidestepping the question of whether 10,000 hours is the “magic number of greatness” as he claimed in Outliers. I’ve written a post analyzing Gladwell’s New Yorker article here:
        allaboutwork.org/2013/09/22/malcolm-gladwells-weak-defense-of-the/‎

  7. Everyone is catching the critical issue, that there is no magic number but that practice is essential to mastery. Some even note that, even genius, requires practice. Few recognize that in this formula (regardless of the magic number) there is hope and solace to the mediocre. If you do something long enough, you can’t help but get good at it. The number, 10,000 is merely the hook, the jingle, so to speak, to say that you got to put in your time. Pay your dues and they’ll return the favor in some measure of expertise.

  8. I have not yet read Gladwell’s book. My husband has, and he was unimpressed. He mentioned a number of instances in which Gladwell drew inaccurate conclusions from his faulty logic. Now, thanks to your post, if I do actually read Outliers, I’ll be doing so with an especially critical eye.

  9. I disagree with Gladwell’s Rule on these grounds: My husband and I have been married for 25 years. If a day has 24 hours, and a year has 365 days, then one year has 8,760 hours. 25 years of marriage amounts to 218,700 hours. Mere longevity is not proof of success, as proven by the fight we had this morning, one we’ve had on several occasions. So there.

  10. Interesting article and the comments that it generated are just as thought provoking. 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 416 days, give or take a few hours. I read an article about this previously that explained the rule and found it rather obtuse. While I can appreciate that Gladwell is trying in some form or another to encourage the common folk to pursue their passions, I don’t know that I agree with the formula.
    We all learn differently. We all have varying skill levels. I have a deep love of sciences, more out of having a rather curious nature than anything else, but I am no mathematician. I am a visual learner and trying to comprehend a formula is difficult.
    I find ways around it and have read books and essays that actually provide me with the visual I need to understand the concept.
    I suppose, too, the question that comes to mind is motivation. Gladwell cited some very successful and wealthy people to apply this rule of his.
    Will people want to do this with the hope of becoming wealthy or famous? While some say its just a number and Gladwell is wanting only to motivate…I don’t buy it.

    Kind of like the book The Secret. The Law of Attraction craze that followed and many people do not really understand the concept at all. While I’ve researched it, again it seems to be very esoteric in nature.

    In any case, thanks for a very though provoking article.

  11. I want to thank you. I read the Outlier and I thought it was odd that someone would be so definitive and if that was the case why weren’t more people successful since a lot of people have put in 10,000 practice hours into perfecting a specific skill. It did not take into account talent, luck or that someone may have built on to another person initial work.

  12. I wanted to offer a personal insight into the 10,000 rule because quite frankly Malcolm Gladwell changed my life with that concept. I’ve just had some heavy medical treatments yesterday so my brain is quite foggy but I will do my best to share my experience. My grandmother was child prodigy pianist Eunice Gardiner. At the age of 16 back in the 1930s she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London where she was dubbed “Melba of the piano”. I always grew up with the notion of talent. You either had it or you didn’t. My mother was my grandmother’s pupil and so it was expected and I say expected that I would follow in their footsteps and given an early start, my future was almost guaranteed. What my mother didn’t count on my complete lack of interest at age four. I still remember hating hating to sit still at the piano. I wanted to run around and play. As I got older, I learned the piano but was frustrated. For some reason, my mother could just pick up almost any piece of music and sight read it and I couldn’t do the same. I assumed at a subconscious level that she had the gift and I did not. Over time, I drifted far away from the piano and music and focused on my writing where I have no doubt exceeded my 1000,000 hours of practice. I don’t stop.

    Coincidently, about two years after reading Gladwell’s book my daughter took up the violin and the teacher invited me to sit in. I saw that she needed me to help her get started and the next thing I was actually learning myself and I started to apply this principle of regular practice doing at least my 30 minutes a day. This built up and I was doing an hour to 1.5 hours a day. Now my teacher also taught me how to practice and that meant focusing on the bits where I was making mistakes and didn’t like that I used to avoid. Instead I had to focus on the mistakes and improve them. I also had to open my eyes to the details like the dynamics, timing and really think about them. I used to play my pieces the way I liked to play them which mostly resembled the original but I know Fur Elise was played at least at double speed. Following these principles, I have achieved an A in my preliminary exam which is a long way from playing at Carnegie Hall (where my grandmother played by the way) but I am on my way. Knowing that the hours of practice made a difference and that it wasn’t all dependent on raw talent has changed my life and Malcolm Gladwell got that part right.

    I have now applied what I’ve learned through taking on the violin and I’m teaching my Fur Elise. Only two weeks ago I couldn’t even play C major scale anymore but the rust has fallen off and it’s sounding quite good now. All it took was persistence. Or maybe I do have some talent after all….

  13. Another influence on this thinking may be coming from Bruce Lee who said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”
    This philosophic approach has to do with dedicating oneself to the art at hand. Another such quote was something like, “After 100 repetitions a punch is still a punch, after 1000, it becomes something more and after 10000, something else entirely.” I’ve no idea who this Gladwell chap is but clearly he’s just devised a set of statistics demonstrating that if you put enough time into something, chances are you’ll become quite good at it.

  14. I really enjoyed reading this post, I’ve never read any of his books although they have been recommended to me by friends. I think it’s very irresponsible to distort Information and am now reconsidering whether or not I really want to read any of Gladwell’s books.

  15. Reblogged this on Jack Foehammer and commented:
    Read and you make the call. To become exceptional at anything surely takes a ton of sustained effort, but to say you put the average at 10,000 for anything doesn’t seem logical. If that were the case, people would start tracking their hours on a spreadsheet and actually count on being great

  16. The 10,000 hour rule is obvious nonsense. Say, “you need to put in a lot of work to become very good at something difficult” and it’ll be true, but who will take you for a prophet? It’s completely unmeasurable because it’s impossible to allocate much of your activity to any one heading. For example, say you’ve become a brilliant maker of inspiring speeches. So to do this you needed to spend many hours learning your mother tongue, its grammar and a fairly wide vocabulary – so most of your waking life up to the age of five counts as do school classes in English/Russian/Hindi/Yoruba. Great speakers have a good understanding of human nature, so include that time you got stood up, that time you got robbed, that time someone helped you home when you were drunk and all the time you spent calming a distraught friend. Otherwise you could find that the actual practice in public speaking, including speech preparation, amounted to about thirty hours, not 10,000.

    I completely agree with you about writers who are slipshod with facts. There’s deliberate tweaking of the facts, which may well be so with this example, but there’s also just carelessness, even less forgiveable when things are so much more quickly checked via the internet. Two examples from my degree subject of History, one quite well-known and the other that I recently spotted. That one first.

    A book by an academic on medieval English history refers to the role of Nottingham Castle at that time and notes that it stayed important for a long time as it was a key stronghold for the King in our 17th-century Civil War. WRONG: as most people with an interest in that war know, it was a key stronghold throughout for the other side, Parliament.

    An English academic who was rather proud of his German was reading some German sources on the outbreak of the First World War and came on a German general saying, “Wir rechneten unbedingt mit England als Fremd.” (We took it for granted that England would be our enemy). However, “unbedingt” literally means “unthought” and our academic mistranslated the comment as “We considered it unthinkable that England would be our enemy”, completely reversing the meaning. On this boo-boo he built an entire theory that Britain had not made its intentions sufficiently clear to Germany, and if it had, the war might have never happened. What’s more, other people quoted his mistranslation without checking the original. Woops big time.

    That’s before you get to the historical novelists…

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