How many hours does it take to master a skill? Well, if you read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers, you’ll remember that “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” This 10-000 Hour Rule is a heavily cited pedagogy in the world of lifelong learning. But I have some good news!
It turns out that this is not what the research shows. Put differently: For any skill you’re trying to master, you can become extremely proficient in much less time than Gladwell suggests. Keep reading to find out how.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
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 of practice (that’s about 90 minutes per day for 20 years) 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 almost anyone wanting to become highly proficient in any skill, at any point in their lives. This is despite increasing evidence showing that the 10,000-Hour Rule is largely inaccurate.
This inaccuracy is good news for any of us looking to become adept at a new skill. Where Gladwell’s rule promised us a massive undertaking to achieve proficiency, it could instead be much easier than you’ve been led to believe.
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 shows. 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 fails to adequately discriminate between the quantity of hours spent practicing, and the quality of that practice. This misses a huge portion of Ericsson’s findings, and seems to be the reason why Tim Ferriss scoffs at Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in this video.
Additionally, another of Ericsson’s studies looks at skills which can be mastered in “a minute fraction of the 10,000 hours estimated to be necessary to attain high levels of expert performance” by using very specific, deliberate methods of practice.
The takeaway is that practice may be important, but it’s far from the whole story. Gladwell has succumbed to survivor bias. By focusing on what the successful did to get to the top, he has failed to satisfactorily account for the multitudes who logged their 10,000+ hours, yet still failed to attain mastery.
To add more weight to this argument, another 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 far more to mastering a skill than just months or years of practice. Genetics and the amount of competition in a given area play some role, for sure. 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 learn, we can create a far more efficient learning routine.
In fact, Ferriss, during a SXSWi presentation claimed:
This may or may not be an exaggeration, but what Ferriss is emphasizing here is the quality of practice over the quantity. Even if the real figure is two-years, not six-months (to become world-class in almost any skill) it’s a huge improvement on Gladwell’s disheartening 10,000-Hour Rule.
What’s more, studies in both science and psychology are repeatedly showing us new—or at least more nuanced—ways of learning. These refined tactics and strategies are able to help us become proficient, expert, masterful, or at least very 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, you’re creating a way to more accurately spot your errors and identify potential improvements to your learning routine. 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 the 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.
For some skills, you’ll be able to track results and measurements yourself. One easy option is to collect progress data using Google Forms to provide you with feedback. You can then use this data to adjust your future approach.
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 help you keep improving.
2. Deliberate Practice
To go back to Anders Ericsson, much of his research has been focused on Deliberate Practice. The following video explains it well.
Deliberate Practice is seen by some as one of the most efficient ways to learn. That is, to focus very deliberately on the narrow sub-skills needed to make up an overall skill.
Based on his research on Deliberate Practice, Ericsson writes:
“The effects of mere experience [of performing a skill] 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, and sub-skills, however, ensured they continued to improve and perform at the top of their game.
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 rough retention rates to be expected through various forms of teaching. The pyramid has its opponents, but for many, it remains a reliable guideline.
As you can see, 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.
Participatory methods, however, offer much more promise. “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 cannot 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 document and explain what you’re learning to others.
Deciding to become a teacher means thoroughly understanding a very specific area of study before being able pass on that knowledge others. This gives you the motivation and responsibility to really get to grips with a 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 relevant online forum.
Or if you want to keep things simple, start a WordPress blog to share your findings, methods, and results. If you don’t want to set up a blog, you can publish directly to Medium, or even start a YouTube channel to share what you’re learning
How Many Hours Does It Really Take?
As explained, Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule is based on very unstable foundations. Luckily for us, the alternative is far more preferable.
By paying close attention to how you structure your practice time, introducing feedback loops, deliberate practice, and an aspect of teaching into your learning methods, you can become highly proficient at most skills in far less time than you might otherwise think.