When somebody performs in an exceptional way, you might exclaim, "What talent!" But if you refer to the expertise as “talent,” you lose sight of the hard work it took that person to reach such a high level of achievement. You might mistakenly believe an innate ability caused their success. Knowing the 10,000-Hour Rule can free you from the myth of talent.
World-Class Expertise takes about 10,000 Hours of Practice
During the last 30 years, scientists studied experts in many fields and they discovered something groundbreaking. Researchers expected to find that expertise required innate ability coupled with excellent preparation. But, what they didn’t expect to discover was that innate ability played the smaller role and practice played the larger role in developing expertise.
The foremost researcher on expertise, K. Anders Ericsson, began by studying violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin. He assumed that the violinists identified by the music professors as the most gifted had achieved their performance levels more rapidly and with less practice than not-as-gifted violinists who would need more practice to offset lesser talent.
The violinists were classed by the music professors into three groups—the best, those likely to be world-class soloists; the good, those likely to be professional performers; and lastly, those likely to become music teachers. Instead of proving that the most talented needed less practice, Ericsson discovered the opposite. They had practiced the most. In fact, they had practiced 10,000 hours over about ten years. The graph below shows the practice hours for each group.
This result didn’t just happen with violinists. Over numerous studies of experts, including athletes, scientists, writers, artists, doctors, and chess players, researchers kept encountering 10,000 hours of practice. Instead of innate ability making effort easier and achievement quicker, the highest levels of expertise in each domain took about the same amount of practice to achieve. In other words, experts are made, not born.
Ericsson says, "Popular lore is full of stories about unknown athletes, writers and artists who become famous overnight, seemingly because of innate talent--they're ‘naturals,’ people say. However, when examining the developmental histories of experts, we unfailingly discover that they spent a lot of time in training and preparation."
Confusing Expertise and Talent
The 10,000-Hour Rule is both good news and bad news. First, the bad news. The misconception of talent says great performers are born that way. So, if something is hard to do, you might think you lack talent, which lets you off the hook to push through the difficulty. But, the research is clear. No one reaches the highest levels of achievement without putting in ten thousand hours of practice over about ten years. No expert says getting there was easy. Einstein put it succinctly, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.”
The good news is that you actually have more control over what you might accomplish than if you believe the myth of talent. Understanding that high achievement is more about effort and less about giftedness can boost motivation and persistence when getting to the next level is difficult. You don’t have control over innate abilities, but you do have a say about effort.
The 10,000-Hour Rule does not mean innate endowments contribute nothing to high achievement. It’s clear that physical traits matter in sports, for example. It just debunks the notion that innate giftedness is the cause of exceptionality. Deliberate effort matters more than talent.
Not just any kind of practice works. Ericsson discovered that experts practiced in a particular way, which he called deliberate practice. “Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills. The enormous concentration required to undertake these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them,” he says.
Deliberate practice requires a mindset that remains unperturbed by the continuous failures inherent in practicing skills outside your current reach. (For more on this mindset read Incremental Intelligence.) The elements of deliberate practice are similar to the conditions that create a state of Flow, which might explain why putting in the long hours to gain mastery can be sustained.
What the 10,000-Hour Rule Means for Parents
When parents understand the research on expertise they are no longer misdirected by the myth of natural talent. They say different things to kids about their interests and potential. Many high achieving performers didn’t exhibit superior performance early. In his sophomore year, Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school varsity basketball team and had to be satisfied with another year of JV. This spurred him to work harder.
When kids understand that time and deliberate practice drive success, they have more options than if they believe that innate ability makes great performance come easily.
Chapter 2 of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is titled The 10,000-Hour Rule. It's the #1 book on PCM’s Top 10 Books for Parents. This influential and entertaining NYT Best Seller introduces many of PCM's Top 10 Learning Concepts.
The Making of an Expert, by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues, a 6-page article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review, doesn't sugarcoat the conclusions.
The Genius in All of Us, by David Shenk, subtitled Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong, is on PCM’s Top 10 Books for Parents.
A Star is Made, an article by Freakonomics authors Dubner and Levitt, is said to have caused an avalance of popular, best selling books on expertise, talent, and success.
No You Can’t: Is Genius a Simple Matter of Hard Work? Not a Chance, a short article that argues genius is more than a matter of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.