Perfecting Your Craft: Does It Really Take 10,000 Hours?

By Kristen Harris

There is an oft-cited “rule” that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field. People have latched onto this 10,000 Hours Rule, especially after Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Outliers, because it’s short, simple and easy to remember.

Does this mean you can’t be world-class in less than 10,000 hours? Or that you’re guaranteed to be world-class if you put in 10,000 hours of practice? No, and no. It’s more complex than this.

  1. What’s true about the 10,000 Hours Rule? The original research(1) shows that it requires a lot of effort and practice, over many years, to become accomplished in a field where there is a history of people working to become experts. The exact number of hours invested may vary, but it does take intense study and practice to become a master in any field. This is most obvious in areas that traditionally require study and practice, like music, chess, writing, or academic research. The real insight of this study is that you must be focused and dedicated to commit this amount of practice to fine tuning your craft. Most people are not willing to put in the time and effort; those that do have the opportunity to become world-class.

What’s wrong with the 10,000 Hour Rule? It’s much too simple. Just because you are willing to practice 10,000 hours, or whatever amount of time is required for someone to become world-class at a certain activity, does not mean you will become world-class. Natural ability is a key factor that can’t be ignored. No matter how hard or long I practice, I will never become good enough to play basketball or dance professionally. I simply do not have the physical attributes and innate talent required. Putting in the required amount of practice does not guarantee you can become world-class.

This brings up the issue of what exactly is meant by “deliberate practice”. The study seems to indicate that there is a difference between what is gained through performing vs creating. Someone can practice playing a piece of music over and over, and get quite good at performing it, but that does not help them build the skills required to write new creative music of their own. Creativity and fresh ideas can catapult someone to success, with or without the required hours of practice.

Finally, the field in which one is striving to become world-class makes a difference.(2) Deliberate practice seems to be a higher predictor of success in fields that are stable, like tennis, chess or classical music. Everyone is following the same rules, so more practice helps you become more skilled. However, in fields that are less stable, like entrepreneurship, rock and roll, and creative design there are fewer rules. Rules are made to be broken, amirite? When the field has less restrictive rules or standards of measurement, a brilliant idea can trump years of practice.

So, does practice matter? Yes! It’s important to grasp the core message of the 10,000 Hour Rule...practice makes you better. When two people have equal talent and abilities, the one who practices more will generally achieve a higher standard of excellence. If you want to get really good at something, practice, practice, practice. Hone your skills and keep learning how to get better in your chosen field. To be world-class you must be willing to put in at least the same amount of work as those you are being compared to or competing with. Additional practice always improves performance; there is no top limit, the equation never maxes out.

But practice is not the only factor in your ability to become world-class. Physical traits, mental capability, innate talent, access to resources, and being in the right place at the right time all contribute to one’s ability to become world-class. Honestly assess your abilities and steer yourself in a direction where they can be put to the best use. Take advantage of available resources and opportunities, practice your craft, and keep developing yourself to become the best you can be in your field.

1 Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2016 by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

2 Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions. A Meta-Analysis / Research Article by Brooke N Macnamara, David Z. Hambrick, Fredierick L. Oswald. First published July 1, 2014.