Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Will Your 10,000 Hours Be Obsolete?

Several books have discussed the idea that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to become great at what you do. The message: practice is more important than innate skills. I've been following the subject for a number of years. What triggered my interest in writing a blog post about it was this recent book review:
Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible. ... “You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation,” he writes. “You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.” "How to Be Brilliant, a Review of 'The Genius in All of Us' by David Shenk," New York Times, 3/21/10.
Like Shenk, the authors of these books reference the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson.
Ericcson's scholarly work is considerable (in addition to publishing numerous articles in scholarly journals, Ericcson has edited and contributed to four books on expertise, including the magisterial "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance"). But his recent fame is due to his prominence in several popularizations: Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success," Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born, It's Grown: Here's How," Geoff Colvin's "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else," and I suspect David Shenk's optimistically-titled "The Genius in All of Us" (due to be released in 2010). "Can Anybody Be A Genius? A Combined Book Review," The Buck Stops Here, 11/14/09.
Gladwell's book has gotten the most attention. Here's an excerpt:
"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years.... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery." "Extract from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: Is there such a thing as pure genius?" The Guardian, 11/15/08.
In his blog post, "The 10,000 hours rule," Jason Kemp talks about Gladwell and provides links to some related videos. (Actually quite few people have referenced Gladwell and the 10,000 hours concept, but I thought Kemp's post was particularly interesting.)

Of course, it's not just a matter of practice. You need to have the resources to be able to practice, and then you need to have certain opportunities to do the most with that skill.
Ten thousand hours is, of course, an enormous amount of time. It's all but impossible to reach that number, by the time you're a young adult, all by yourself. You have to have parents who are encouraging and supportive. You can't be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won't be enough time left over in the day. In fact, most people can really only reach that number if they get into some kind of special programme - like a hockey all-star squad - or get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in that kind of work. "Extract from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: Is there such a thing as pure genius?" The Guardian, 11/15/08.
But the concept of 10,000 hours raises a lot of questions in my mind:
  • What if you put in all that time, and then the world has moved on? What if, when you began, everyone thought your sport or your music or your career pursuit was cool, but now it has fallen out of favor? What if you are very good at something now perceived as obsolete?
  • And how do you train for a career that hasn't been invented yet?
  • And does training year after year make sense when our world changes so quickly now?
  • In other words, how do you know, in advance, where to spend your 10,000 hours?

  • Let me backtrack a bit and say that I got interested in the "10,000 hours" concept when I was writing about sports careers. There is tremendous pressure on young athletes to begin specialization at an early age to rack up those hours. This paper - "To sample or to specialize?" - gives a good overview of what we currently know about grooming elite athletes. Unless an athlete is in a sport where the world's best may be in their teens (e.g., figure skating, gymnastics), early specialized training confers no advantage and in fact may lead to increased dropout.

    According to Jason Gulbin, who studied elite Australian athletes, ten years of training isn't necessarily required, particularly among athletes who had been in sports, but not in the ones they ended up in.
    The frequency distribution of the number of years required from first ever experience in their scholarship sport to achieving senior national representation (i.e. expertise), revealed that 70% of athletes required less than 10 years to achieve expertise. However, 1 in 4 athletes (28%) had achieved national representation in ≤ 4 years. In comparison with those achieving expertise in 10 years or more, these ‘quick-developers’ were characterised by transferring relatively late into their scholarship sport (17.1 ± 4.5 years), had experienced a greater variety of sports before specialisation, commenced at higher levels of competition, and seldom oscillated between junior and senior competition pathways. Thus, for a large proportion of the Australian high performance sporting system, the 10 year developmental ‘rule of thumb’ does not apply, and furthermore, accelerated development can occur with late specialisation. "Why Deliberate Practice isn’t Enough."
    Here are several other resources which suggest experience in a variety of sports, rather than 10,000 hours in one sport, prepares athletes for elite competition.

  • The Myth of Early Specialization
  • Early Specialization in Youth Sport: a requirement for adult expertise?
  • Sport-Specific Practice and the Development
    of Expert Decision-Making in Team Ball Sports

  • Now, moving on to music training, Robert Maddocks writes in "Getting There: 10 Years or 10,000 Hours" that there are variables other than 10,000 hours which factor into success. Classical music takes years of practice, but rock music generally does not. And if you are good at what you do, but the world isn't receptive to it, then you may toil in obscurity. In terms of achievement, he feels focus comes first, because it allows you to put in whatever hours are required.

    Seth Godin's theory is that it depends on the field. When you're embarking on something new, you don't have a lot of competition.
    For me, though, some of the 10k analysis doesn't hold up. The Doors (or Devo or the Bee Gees) for example, didn't play together for 10,000 hours before they invented a new kind of rock. If the Doors had encountered significantly more competition for their brand of music, it's not clear that they could have gotten away with succeeding as quickly as they did. Hey, Miley Cyrus wasn't even 10,000 hours awake before she became a hit. "10,000 hours," Seth Godin's Blog, 12/29/08.
    Bill Wilkie describes his experience around well-trained musicians, a sentiment I've seen expressed about other music schools as well.
    I attended the New England Conservatory for a few years. The freshman class was made up of blindingly good kids who wowed everyone back home. ... The problem was that most of the young ones, including me, sounded like skilled typists or impersonators. Few became real artists .... "10,000 Hours to Mastery?!?" Escape From Excellence, 5/9/08.
    Moving on to science, in this article, "Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, 'Outliers,' and the 10,000 hour rule," Michael Nielsen gives four examples of significant discoveries (quantum mechanics, the structure of DNA, algorithmic information theory, the cause of extinction of dinosaurs) made by people who didn't have 10,000 hours in these fields.

    Similarly Sabrina Mach and James Page - in "Utopians & Idealists: Who Can Handle Innovation?" - raise the possibility that in times of change having those 10,000 hours in an established field might turn out to be a waste. When you need a new way of thinking perhaps being an expert in an older way of thinking may hold you back.

    So in at least three fields (sports, music, and science), some people are not accepting the 10,000 hours at face value. Here are two articles that seek to define more carefully what practice can give you.

  • This author says that 10,000 hours will give you enough experience to know when to break the rules. There's a nice chart that compares levels of training to levels of order and chaos. The musician, for example, who has played for years is less likely to be thrown by unexpected problems at a show.
    10, 100, 1000, 10000 hours; a couple of days, a couple of weeks, half a year, five years; trainee, apprentice, journeyman, master. A useful rule-of-thumb to describe four different and distinct layers of skill. "10, 100, 1000, 10000," Thinking side-wise, 7/12/09.
  • Aubrey C. Daniels points out in "Expert Performance: Apologies to Dr. Ericsson, but it is not 10,000 hours of deliberate practice" the key appears not just to practice the same thing over and over again, but to try enough different options to develop responses to fit whatever circumstances arise.

    To be fair, Ericsson said the same thing. Here is a quote from from Philip E. Ross in “The Expert Mind” for Scientific American.
    Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time.

    Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance–for instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s exam– most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields. "Quality, Continuous Improvement, and the Expert Mind," Quality and Innovation, 2/24/09.
  • Okay, now having injected some shades of grey into what is sometimes portrayed as a black-and-white situation, I'd like look what the 10,000 hours concept means moving forward.

    There seem to be at least three points to contemplate.

    1. Some of us are putting 10,000 hours into something, not necessarily with any particular goal in mind, but which will turn out to be useful.
    Take gaming, for example.
    So, consider this really interesting statistic. It was recently published by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games, by the age of 21. Now 10,000 hours is a really interesting number for two reasons. First of all, for children in the United States 10,080 hours is the exact amount of time you will spend in school from fifth grade to high school graduation if you have perfect attendance.

    ... And so, now what we're looking at is an entire generation of young people who are virtuoso gamers. "Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world," TED, February 2010.
    McGonigal believes gaming will translate into skills that can be applied to solve the world's problems. Here's a summation of those skills.
    Urgent optimisim – a belief that you will ultimately be successful, even if you experience many failures.
    Social fabric – a sense of trust that others will help you.
    Blissful productivity – a desire to work hard and purposefully.
    Epic meaning – an understanding that one is individually capable of changing the world. "10,000 Hours of Gaming," TalentedApps, 2/17/10.
    2. We don't necessarily have to put in 10,000 hours while we're young. Daniel Rasmus suggests that lifelong learning will turn out to serve us better.
    As the world changes, as technology and ecology shift before our eyes, as political situations and business models, come and go rapidly, we all become amateurs eventually. Our learning, our formal learning, becomes relatively meaningless against what we have taught ourselves and learned from life. ... [the model will be] the person who strives to add value based on their talent despite the lack of interest in formal studies in an area, a lack of aptitude for an approach or technique -- but with a keen insight into problem solving that may in fact, be innovative, too innovative perhaps, and too time consuming to be supported in an academic world driven by the productivity of publication. "Genius At Work," Windows Live, 5/8/07.
    He also says that we might be too narrowly defining what expertise/genius is. A person who can discern new ideas via pattern recognition (a skill which may develop from multidisciplinary training rather than from specialized training) may be more important to society than someone who narrowly excels.
    Problem solving ... is not the only representation of genius. Collaboration is right. Obsession is right. So are many other attributes, like pattern recognition, building consensus, creating relationships, and incremental and purposeful innovation. Let us not be so narrow in our definition of genius because with change we can not foretell what kind of genius we will need so as we do with learning, pushing toward life long learning, we should be pushing for life long pursuit of insight, because we never know who, or where or what may be needed as the world's values and economics and technologies shift around us.
    3. Our concept of expertise may be changing. Charles Leadbeatter believes that much innovation will come from people who aren't perceived as experts, but who have devoted time to their passions.
    Longer healthy life spans will allow people in their forties and fifties to start taking up Pro-Am activities as second careers. Rising participation in education will give people skills to pursue those activities. New media and technology enable Pro-Ams to organize. "Amateur Revolution," Fast Company, 10/1/04.
    My takeaway from all of this is that if you have focus and are well-trained (either by others or self-taught) you'll have valuable tools to draw upon. But doggedly training in one particular area may result in great skill in that area, but without the flexibility to see the future and to adjust. The 10,000 hours concept, while useful in stressing the importance of hard work to success, seems most applicable in fields where achievements are already well-defined. If you want to be a great golfer, classical musician, or chess player, you're going to start by practicing what others have already learned.

  • But for future innovations, you might be better served by drawing upon a mixture of skills that you acquired from broad-based learning.
  • You might invent something new because you pull together ideas and skills in unusual ways rather than practicing what is well-estabished.
  • Your 10,000 hours may have come from a variety of activities rather than from just one.
  • You may not know which of your 10,000 hours will be useful to you until you are already in the middle of your expertise.

  • As Jason Kemp writes:
    My first year at university was 1977, when I studied Vietnamese Politics (very current at the time) and eventually law, arts and business – however computer technology changed my life in early ’80’s and that was something I could not have studied even if I had wanted to. Fortunately – being a creative generalist by inclination I was able to leverage a very wide range of experiences into a new emerging sector. "Creativity & Innovation Linked," thinking: relating- celebrating :-), 6/16/07.
    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE 8/16/10
    Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule

    The messiness of Hamming’s speech contrasts with the rational cleanliness of another popular model of becoming excellent: the 10,000 hour rule. ...

    This rule reduces achievement to quantity: the secret to becoming great is to do a great amount of work. What Hamming emphasizes, however, is that quantity alone is not sufficient. ... Those 10,000 hours have to be invested in the right things, and as the disjointed nature of Hamming’s talk underscores, the question of what are the right things is slippery and near impossible to nail down with confidence.

    In other words, becoming excellent is not the result of a well-behaved tallying of hours, it instead emerges out of a swamp of roiling ambiguity. If you’re not ready for this reality, he implies, you’re unlikely to last long on a path toward greatness. "Beyond the 10,000 Hour Rule: Richard Hamming and the Messy Art of Becoming Great," Study Hacks, 8/9/10.
    UPDATE 11/12/10
    This article suggests that the very skills that make you an expert may also lock you into a certain type of thinking. The better your brain becomes at perceiving patterns within your field of expertise, the more your brain is taken over by that expertise and the less able you are to process new information. "The Cognitive Cost Of Expertise."


    1. If we're to look at the issue from a different perspective, some contradictions become less daunting.

      I believe that we should not ignore the external context: if you are doing something that hasn't been done before, it doesn't matter, terribly, if you're doing it badly.

      The novelty of experimentation (if the results catch on) is usually enough to satisfy the initial recepients. The very fact that the Doors had "invented a new kind of rock" meant that they didn't have to reach any pre-conceived standard. What they did was the best you could get, because nobody else was doing it.

      It's a pertinent subject as the Web evolves - as new vistas open, the minimum time needed to master the field will be determined by how much time everyone else is putting in. After certain skill sets solidify and certain levels of mastery are achieved by those who've been there from the start, it will likely start approaching the aforementioned 10,000 hour figure.

    2. Yes, I think that is true. If you are the first, there's no standard. Then with each person that comes after, you can compare to what has gone before.

    3. I really enjoyed this article, Suzanne.

    4. Thank you. I hope I pulled a lot of stuff together in one place for people interested in the subject. Gladwell got people talking about it, but in reality, how does the average person turn that information into practical application?

      I spent about six years in the company of Olympic level athletes (figure skaters). I saw some of the best in the world train daily. Those kids and their families invested heavily in hopes of getting to the Olympics, but the odds of getting that far are very slim. So kids and their parents have to ask themselves if all that training and the expenses that come with it are worth it to them, not knowing in advance how it will all turn out. And you also have to factor into the mix that genetics play a role. Some body types do better than others. But when kids start training at an early age, you don't always know what they will have to work with when they hit 13 - 18. Grow too little or too much and you may drop out of contention.

    5. There seems to be confusion in some of the critical articles over just what that 10,000 hours gives you. Being successful does not necessarily mean that you are a virtuoso, and vice versa. Just because Miley Cyrus has a hit does not mean that she is highly skilled - just that she has a good marketing team.

    6. What I think they are pointing out is that in some fields, you don't need a lot of training to be successful.

      Miley Cyrus is the flavor of the moment and I don't think she'll leave a significant legacy in popular music. So she isn't a good example of skill. But she has reached a significant level in her little part of the world.

      With sport and chess, there are at least some agreed upon levels of what the best might be. At any given time, the best (based on competition) tend to rise to the top.

      In entertainment, it's far more subjective. And it probably isn't even fair to compare Mozart, who composed, to a top classical performer, who "merely" interprets. In one case, it requires creating something new. In the other, it means performing exceptionally well what has already been created.

      I felt it was worthwhile to pull apart the "it takes 10,000 hours" concept so that anyone contemplating doing it would have a better sense of what that means.

      If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you will likely put in those hours. If you want to create a lifetime body of musical work that is respected for at least decades, you will probably put in the work.

      But if you want to be at the top of the entertainment ladder for the moment, you may need to do little more than being on the right TV show.

      Let's say you want to create the best young singer/songwriter in modern history. What kind of training would you have him/her do? Listen to lots of music in a variety of genres? Write a song a week over ten years? What kind of music would likely result and who in today's musical environment do you think most fits the bill?

      In 20th century, here are a few songwriters who were both talented and prolific:

      Who is currently under 30 and has or will likely rise to that level?

      It's an interesting subject and I appreciate all of your comments.

    7. Almost every youth sports organization has started exploring the concept of Long Term Athlete Development(LTAD) and initiating some of these principles into their organizational philosophy. I guess its better late than never, as parents are investing a lot of money into their children's athletic endeavors and the kids themselves are spending huge amounts of practice time into become better athletes, so I think its important to be able to quantify and track their development over time.

      Youth sports organizations should also be accountable to their members and part of this accountability should be to "do the right thing" for the kids. 10,000 hours is a huge time commitment, so invest wisely.

    8. "What if you put in all that time, and then the world has moved on? What if, when you began, everyone thought your sport or your music or your career pursuit was cool, but now it has fallen out of favor? What if you are very good at something now perceived as obsolete?"

      Kill me now...:)

    9. You're way to obsessed with the "10,000 hours" part of Outliers.

      The quotation of anomalies (pop stars, etc.) appears to be trying to refute the point of the book, as if the point of the book were that 10k hours implies mastery and success.

      Gladwell's point is that once you weed out the people who are *bad* at something, what differentiates the best from the good is the amount of time spent practicing/working. 10,000 hours is just a rule of thumb, an incidental observation.

    10. Outliers merely popularized the concept of "10,000 hours." If you read all the research I pulled together, it has been covered by a number of people. And the idea keeps popping up in other books. I went back and tried to pin it down and what the studies have really shown.

    11. Thanks for covering this. The whole 10,000 hrs thing is more confusing than clarifying.

      What would be more useful is a test that functions as a guide to know what you're best off practicing for those hours. I don't think the psych tests along those lines, aptitude and so on, are any good.

      Maybe it's impossible to tell except by trial and error, but if so then many people will end up getting errors until they are too old to accumulate the hours anymore.

      It is messy, and very much influenced by luck of genetics, family, youth, and so on. I know it's not what people want to hear but I believe luck is "it" one way or the other.

    12. Thanks Rupert. I got interested in the concept after watching Olympic level figure skaters. This is a sport where training starts young and it's expensive. But it has also shifted in popularity in recent years. So you have a group of kids who may have embarked on this journey when figure skating was at its peak of popularity, but who now find they are highly qualified in a career that is less lucrative. So was that decision to train so long the right one looking back? Perhaps not if there was some expectation of financial reward. If, on the other hand, they were simply pursuing this for their own satisfaction, then perhaps that is satisfaction enough. The idea of suggesting that people who want to become experts need to pursue years of training implies that we know well in advance what they should be studying.

    13. The only thing I know of that is worthwhile to start early and invest that kind of training in is music. Studies in brain development keep on showing that music learned before age 7 has a number of other benefits in mental function.

      However for those benefits I don't think a concentrated 10 K hours is needed. Probably just playing a couple times a week is sufficient, either by lessons or just playing with friends and family. And if you're really good it will pay off, but for that you need, uhm, talent! ;)

      Especially in our times I agree there is no way to predict which road to head down for some final result.

    14. So today it seems that Classical music is being greatly de-valued; almost obsolete. Even the Churches are going Contemporary. The curriculum at colleges for music majors is geared towards improvisation and playing by chords. My question then becomes: Why would anyone have any faith in the so called"experts"? Why not just self-teach by direct work with experienced people in the field one is interested in; sort of like centuries ago when young people became apprentices.?


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