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Malcolm Gladwell gave us the 10,000-Hour Rule. It turns out that rule is wrong. Here’s why, and how you can beat it.

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published his New York Times bestseller, Outliers. It’s within this book — based largely on the research of Anders Ericsson — that Gladwell frequently talks about the 10,000-Hour rule, citing it as “the magic number of greatness.”

The book looks at a number of “outliers”, people who are extraordinarily proficient in certain subjects or skills. It then tries to break down what helped them to become outliers.

According to Gladwell, one common factor among these carefully selected individuals was the amount of time they practiced within their area of study. It appeared that only by reaching 10,000 hours (that’s about 90 minutes per day for 20 years) of practice could one become an outlier. To use another of Gladwell’s popular terms, 10,000 hours is the “Tipping-Point” of greatness. You can see him explaining this here:

In the years following the book’s publication, this 10,000-Hour Rule has become a platitude for life-long learners, lifestyle designers, and self-improvement bloggers. This is despite increasing evidence showing that the 10,000-Hour Rule is grossly inaccurate.

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This inaccuracy is good news for any of us looking to become even above average in a skill. Gladwell’s rule promised us a massive undertaking when tackling a new area of study.

Instead, it could be a lot easier to attain proficiency.

The 10,000-Hour Rule Is Wrong

Anders Ericsson is a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. It’s on the back of his research on Deliberate Practice that Gladwell constructed his book, and his 10,000-Hour Rule. Some people have misattributed this rule to Ericsson himself, which he sought to correct due to its misrepresentation of his actual findings.

Ericsson describes what could only be Gladwell’s work as:

“[A] popularized but simplistic view of our work, which suggests that anyone who has accumulated sufficient number of hours of practice in a given domain will automatically become an expert and a champion.”

Ericsson went on record clarifying that this is not what his research showed. Within that study, there was no magic number for greatness. 10,000 hours was not actually a number of hours reached, but an average of the time elites spent practicing. Some practiced for much less than 10,000 hours. Others for over 25,000 hours.

Additionally, Gladwell failed to adequately distinguish between the quantity of hours spent practicing, and the quality of that practice. This misses a huge portion of Ericsson’s findings, and is the reason why Tim Ferriss scoffs at Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in this video.

On this line, another of Ericsson’s studies showed skills (in this case long term working memory) which could be mastered in “a minute fraction of the 10,000 hours estimated to be necessary to attain high levels of expert performance”, using very specific, deliberate methods of practice.

The takeaway here is that practice may be important, but it’s not the whole story.

One study in Intelligence journal attributed practice to only “about one-third of the reliable variance in performance in chess and music”. The largest meta-analysis in the field found that practice may be responsible for as little as 12% of mastery.

That means there’s much more to mastering a skill than just months, even years, of practice. Genetics may play some role, but science is also giving us glimpses into what else we can do to learn more efficiently.

Tactics for Learning Faster

In recent years there has been a flurry of interest in skill acquisition, and particularly rapid skill acquisition. Tim Ferriss penned The Four-Hour Chef — a 672-page behemoth — tackling this very subject.

Throughout his book Ferriss introduced millions of readers to the idea of meta-learning. That is, the learning about learning. Once we understand how our brain and body learns, we can create a far more efficient learning regimen. In fact, Ferriss, during a SXSWi presentation claimed:

Skill Acquisition

This may or may not be an exaggeration, but what Ferriss is emphasizing here is the quality of practice over the quantity. But even if the real figure is two-years, not six-months, it’s a gargantuan improvement on Gladwell’s hideous promise of 10,000 hours.

What’s more, studies in both science and psychology are repeatedly showing us new, or at least more nuanced, ways of approaching learning. These refined tactics and strategies are able to help us become proficient, expert, masterful, or at least good in a specific domain in a lot less time than we might suppose.

Let me give you just a few of these.

1. Create a Feedback Loop

By creating a feedback loop (or a smart feedback loop How To Lose Weight And Save Money With Smart Feedback How To Lose Weight And Save Money With Smart Feedback Are your attempts at self-improvement met with nothing but frustration and lack of progress? Fortunately, the simple technique of smart feedback, could help you tackle your long-term goals. Read More ), you’re creating a way to more accurately spot your errors and identify potential improvements that are having an effect on your learning. One study conducted at Brunel University, UK explains:

“A feedback loop [provides]…the necessary information for adaptive measures to achieve the desired levels of teaching and learning objectives.”

Acquiring the necessary information to get to a desired objective is precisely what rapid skill acquisition is about. It’s about finding out exactly what you need to change to reach your goal more quickly.

Feedback Loop

For some skills, you’ll be able to track results and measurements yourself The Quantified Self: How To Track Your Life With Your iPhone The Quantified Self: How To Track Your Life With Your iPhone If you track your actions, you will be able to do them better. However, tracking can be tiresome if you don't have the right tools. Let's make it as simple as possible. Read More . You could throw together some useful Google Forms Track Key Areas of Your Life In 1-Minute with Google Forms Track Key Areas of Your Life In 1-Minute with Google Forms It is amazing what you can learn about yourself when you take the time to pay attention to your daily habits and behaviors. Use the versatile Google Forms to track your progress with important goals. Read More  to provide you with feedback, then adapt your approach based on the results.

For other skills, you’ll need feedback from elsewhere: a mastermind group How A Mastermind Group Can Help You Achieve More Goals How A Mastermind Group Can Help You Achieve More Goals The term 'mastermind group' is being thrown around a lot in the personal development sphere these days, but what exactly are they, do they work, and how could you set up your own group? Read More , for instance.

If you’re learning programming How To Learn Programming Without All The Stress How To Learn Programming Without All The Stress Maybe you've decided to pursue programming, whether for a career or just as a hobby. Great! But maybe you're starting to feel overwhelmed. Not so great. Here's help to ease your journey. Read More , submitting your code to communities such as Code Review will provide you with valuable feedback about how to improve.

If you’re learning photography Why Everyone Should Learn a Little Bit of Photography Why Everyone Should Learn a Little Bit of Photography Everyone should learn a little bit of photography because everyone can benefit from it. Here are five reasons why you should consider picking it up. Read More , there’s a Photo Critique subreddit for that.

There are similar communities and forums for virtually anything you want to study. The experts in each of these offer an invaluable feedback loop to keep your skills improving faster than simply practicing over and over.

2. Deliberate Practice

To go back to Anders Ericsson, much of his research has been focused on Deliberate Practice, which I’ve discussed before, and the following video explains it well.

In the article mentioned I explored Deliberate Practice Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice It's all too easy to feel crestfallen when you're arduously trying to improve a certain skill. Use the power of "deliberate practice" to get you over those infuriating plateaus. Read More , which is seen by some as one of the most efficient ways to learn. That is, to focus very deliberately on the sub-skills that make up an overall skill.

To delve even deeper in this topic, read Cal Newport’s blog, StudyHacks. To quote that article:

“By choosing a specific aim (i.e. becoming an expert WordPress programmer), you can clearly see the sub-skills that are important to master in order to help you achieve this aim — PHP, CSS, etc. Each of these individual sub-skills, of course, can be broken down into further sub-sub-skills. By deliberately focusing on mastering each of these sub-sub-skills individually, you can become an expert WordPress programmer.”

Based on his research on Deliberate Practice, Ericsson writes:

“The effects of mere experience differ greatly from those of Deliberate Practice, where individuals concentrate on actively trying to go beyond their current abilities.”

Unsurprisingly, Deliberate Practice is hard. Ericsson found that elite athletes, writers, and musicians could only sustain the concentration needed for Deliberate Practice for relatively short periods of time. Their concentration on very specific skills, however, ensured they continued to improve and perform at the top of their game.


You can even find tools and apps for tracking deliberate practice in the key areas of your life. Or just repurpose the tools around you.

For e.g. get better at presentations by video capturing your performance with a smartphone. Alternatively, you can search for specialized tools like SpeechMaker.

The web is full of educational games and tools for different skills. Use tools like Anki for learning any new topic. Try deliberate practice for learning programming. And then practice live coding interviews with new tools like Pramp or

Look around and start the marathon.

3. Become a Teacher

The idea of learning through teaching isn’t new. But after a certain amount of research, the National Training Laboratories felt confident enough to release The Learning Pyramid. This is a simple diagram showing the very rough retention rates to be expected through various forms of teaching. The pyramid has its opponents, but for many, it remains a reliable guideline.

The Learning Pyramid

As you can see, the passive learning approaches offer relatively low levels of retention. Unfortunately, this is what we often rely on when picking up a new skill, especially as adults.

The participatory methods, however, offer much more promise. The “Group Discussions” (50% retention), as mentioned previously, could be fostered through mastermind groups or online critiques. “Practice by Doing” (75% retention) is where Deliberate Practice comes in. But with “Teaching Others” reportedly offering a 90% retention rate, we can’t ignore this strategy.

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” –Einstein

Whether you’re already proficient, or a complete novice here isn’t important. If you’re an expert looking to improve, you have a lot to teach. If you’re a novice, you can explain what you’re learning to others.

Harry Cloudfoot, for instance, documented his journey to become a “very good” rock climber using many of Tim Ferriss’ methods. Many of his posts read as lessons that others could follow.

Taking this approach means that you have to truly understand a very specific area of study before being able to teach it to others. This gives you the motivation and responsibility to really get to grips with that topic.

If you’re at an advanced level, you could use sites like Private Tutoring At Home to find tutoring gigs. If you wanted something with less responsibility, you could answer relevant questions on Quora, Reddit, or a subject forum.

One favorite option is to start a blog 10 Essential First Steps When Starting A Wordpress Blog 10 Essential First Steps When Starting A Wordpress Blog Having created quite a few blogs, I'd like to think that I have a good system down for those essential first steps, and I hope it can be of use to you too. By following... Read More where you can publish posts explaining your findings, methods, and results. If you want to write posts, but don’t want to set up a blog, you could write on Medium, or even start a private Facebook group and invite people to join. There are plenty of options.

Putting This Into Action

As I’ve explained, Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule is based on very unstable foundations. Luckily for us, the alternative is far preferable.

By paying close attention to how you spend your practice time you can accelerate your learning so that a skill could be mastered in much less time than you think, provided your efforts are smart and deliberate.

You can do this by introducing reliable feedback loops, Deliberate Practice, and an aspect of teaching, into your learning regimen.

What other learning methods and techniques have helped you to accelerate your learning?

Image Credits: man practicing rock-climbing by Nejron Photo via Shutterstock, The Learning Pyramid via

  1. Miriam English
    June 18, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Interesting article Rob.

    I've been puzzling over the same topic and coming to similar conclusions, however I wonder if, in many cases, the problem is perhaps considerably worse than you think.

    I've set myself the task of becoming proficient at writing stories. My grammar, vocabulary, and general (scientific) knowledge are already good and my spelling excellent, however those are mere mechanics. The trick of writing outstandingly well might be impossible to define. Some part of it depends upon those basic, mechanical skills which can be practiced, but some other part is more difficult to grapple with. How do we practice for ANY amount of hours something that we can't even describe? I am hoping that sufficient practice will alter my thinking so that I can understand those "invisible" patterns. I have hints that this might already be happening, but I can't be sure.

    A worse problem is how to find out whether you can EVER get to the expert level in something. How can I find out if I am any good at something? And how can I find out if I'm improving?

    If you are trying to become a good concreter or trying to learn the python computer language then it is fairly straightforward, but if you are trying to excel at being a musician, or writer, or sculptor, are graphic artist, or 3D modeler the problem is made much worse by the fact that opinion interferes so greatly with your aim. There are countless examples of creators who are now greatly admired, but whose work was dismissed as a waste during their time. Some even died penniless, their work sneered at until later generations realised their brilliance. How can we rely upon feedback from that? I mean, Margaret Mitchell's book "Gone With the Wind" was rejected 38 times before finally getting published. Frank Herbert's "Dune" 26 times. There are many, many more examples. Hell, I would have given up in despair before the rejections got into double digits! Clearly those who claim to be experts at critiquing books are generally not really very good at it and can't be relied upon to gauge competence.

    On the other hand I've noticed how many people tell creators that their work is good simply because they don't wish to offend. That makes reliable feedback virtually impossible to obtain.

    Creative works are such a personal thing. A film that I think is one of the most brilliant things ever produced is dismissed by another person as crap. I can read a book on two separate occasions years apart, the first time being bored out of my skull, but the second time being completely wowed by it. Often when I listen to music the first tracks I enjoy tend to fade in the amount of pleasure they give; the tracks I initially didn't like often become revealed on further listening to be shining gems. Many times a person's mood unfairly affects their perception of a creative piece. If they are tired or irritable then they will attribute their ill-feeling to the piece they are judging.

    So practice can help get to a certain level, especially if the skill is a practical one with easily understood goals. But if the skill being practiced is a creative one then I have a horrible feeling that there is no easy or reliable way to tell whether you're wasting your time, or even improving at all... which is depressing.

    At some point you have to either decide you are wasting your time or labor onward in the conviction that you have something real to contribute. So how do we decide? It seems far too easy to discard genuine, promising talent, or to fritter a life away in delusion.

    (Feel free to judge for yourself how worthwhile or useless I am: All my books and stories are freely downloadable.)

    • Correy
      July 31, 2016 at 11:45 am

      Reading your comment alone I would say you have a gift for writing. I myself am a bit of a writer, but of a more poetic nature. I uploaded several of my poems to Facebook and Of course the Facebook critiques by family and friends were positive, I found the ones from most useful. While most were favorable, they did point out some areas for improvement. Eventually I was published in a collective work, unpaid mind you, but my only real goal was to be published. I say if you truly enjoy writing then do it. As long as it brings you happiness then it is a worthwhile endeavour. If even one other person enjoys your writing that's just icing on the cake.

      • Miriam English
        July 31, 2016 at 12:46 pm

        As long as it brings you happiness then it is a worthwhile endeavour. If even one other person enjoys your writing that's just icing on the cake.

        Thanks for your reply. That really is the only sane way to approach it. I drive myself nuts with these questions. Worrying about the worth of my creations is almost certainly a pointless exercise. I can only do my best. If I'm wasting my time, then who cares? I'm just one out of billions of people. Similarly, if my work turns out to have value to others then that's almost irrelevant; the only one it really needs to have importance to is me. (Now I just have to remember that.)

  2. joey manalang
    April 5, 2016 at 11:41 am

    FAA will require airline pilots to have at least 1500 flight hours

    Before, a first officer had to have only a commercial pilot license, which requires a minimum of 250 hours of flying. The new rule requires the ATP license and the 1,500 hours. In addition, the FAA now requires a pilot to have at least 1,000 as an airline first officer before flying as captain.

    Which simply means you can't trust your life to a guy who became a pilot overnight.

    I don't think Gladwell calculated 10,000 hours and made it a rule. I think you're missing his point. Whether you spend 6,000 or 20,000 hours playing the guitar you will master the guitar depending on how much time you spent playing it in other words, the guy who plays it the most will be "better" at his craft than a mere guitar collector who loves looking at his guitar and showing it off to friends.

    His point was --- the thing you become proficient or an "expert" in is the activity you spend most of your life doing.

    • Rob Nightingale
      April 6, 2016 at 12:27 pm

      "the thing you become proficient or an “expert” in is the activity you spend most of your life doing."

      I think this is similar to what Gladwell was trying to say, too, but as argued in the article, this isn't true. Spending most of your life learning the guitar does not make you great at guitar. You could spend just a few hours per week learning, and become great, provided you practice deliberately.

      Someone can spend most of their life taking notes at work. It doesn't necessarily make them a great note taker, unless they spend time deliberately studying the skill, breaking it down, and practicing the individual parts of the skill... it takes time, yes. But time-spent is not a deciding factor of mastery.

      • joey manalang
        April 6, 2016 at 12:41 pm

        Taking notes...? Not really sure your analogies work.

        Spend another 9,000 hours and maybe you can sell more books with your ideas like Gladwell did.


        • Rob Nightingale
          April 6, 2016 at 2:08 pm

          It was a very low-skill example that can be improved. If I wrote any books (let alone sell any) I would try my best to represent data honestly :)

        • joey manalang
          April 6, 2016 at 2:43 pm

          We can go and on about this but clearly the guy spent a good many years doing extensive research like who would have known Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt were all born in 1955 and they all bought the same magazine that featured an ATARI ad that goes "Build Your Own Computer" when they were teens?

          That's research.

          And here you'll see the patterns he was talking about in OUTLIERS:

          Bill Joy Born 8 Nov 1954 Sun Microsystems, UNIX, Java
          Steve Jobs Born 24 Feb 1955 Apple, Mac, iPod, iPhone, Pixar
          Eric Schmidt Born 27 April 1955 CEO Google prev Apple, Novell
          Tim Berners-Lee Born 8 Jun 1955 World Wide Web
          Bill Gates 28 Oct 1955 MicroSoft, Windows

          You can't discredit the guy with this online article and say he's been wrong all this time.

          And the thing is, he presented it all in such a way that by the end of a single chapter you go:


          That's a combination of talent and thousands and thousands of hours of research...and most of all tons and tons of personal experience. And he wrote them all down in his own original style that comes out entertaining and at the same time educational and profound.

          Believe me, I've read all his books and man, they've changed the way I look at things permanently.

          He may be guilty of over-simplifying the facts of life in his own little way but let's admit it, the guy is a genius and the rest are just jealous of his success.

  3. luis
    March 20, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    one thing to keep in mind, are to question mastery itself, is a skill every truly mastered by time/ quality? Or is it based on the input of other people based on time? And is 20 years the climax wall of retention to be qualified as a "master". sometimes it's better to just say: enough is enough and a little more is too much.

    • Rob Nightingale
      April 6, 2016 at 12:24 pm

      Good points. There will always be a point of diminishing returns that you have to be aware of.

  4. Nick Lynn
    March 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    The world of quick fixes loves to diss Gladwell. Check out elite sports athletes - it's practise, practise, practise. There is no substitute. No quick fix. I'm not talking about just repetition but that's part of it.

    • Rob Nightingale
      March 23, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      True, but I'm not dissing Gladwell from a quick fix angle, but simply showing that the 10,000 hour rule is a blatant misrepresentation of the facts, and that with the write form of practice we can cut this down A LOT (but for some subjects, 10,000 hours won't even be nearly enough)

      • joey manalang
        April 6, 2016 at 12:39 pm

        the write form of practice...? what is that?

        • Rob Nightingale
          April 6, 2016 at 2:08 pm

          You know... like... learning how to spell ;)

        • joey manalang
          April 6, 2016 at 2:45 pm

          LOL :)

  5. Vineet
    December 10, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Great article. Such articles I look forward to from MakeUseOf.


    • Rob Nightingale
      December 15, 2015 at 9:55 am

      Thank you Vineet :)

  6. Tony H
    December 9, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    I'm afraid this isn't really fair to Gladwell. I read the book and remember clearly that he made serious effort to qualify the quality of the practice making all the difference.

    • Rob Nightingale
      December 15, 2015 at 9:55 am

      I'd say he makes a slight effort to, but nowhere near as much as he should be. The *quality* should have been the focus on the book, not the quantity, which is where I think the book went wrong.

  7. fcd76218
    December 9, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Malcolm Gladwell reminds me of Uri Geller.

    "How to Really Master a Skill"
    It depends on your definition of "master." If mastery=proficiency, then one can "master" a skill in relatively short time. Of course, just as in martial arts, there are levels of mastery. If mastery=being expert, then one can never truly "master" a skill because there always is more to learn.

    • Rob Nightingale
      December 15, 2015 at 9:54 am

      I think Ferriss defines it as being "better than 99% of the population". Others would say it's being better than 99.9% of the population. Ferriss' argument is that to get to be n the top 1% is nowhere near as difficult as people think.... Getting gtom 99.9%-100% will of course be immensely difficult, perhaps impossible...

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