The 10,000 Hours Battle

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The 10,000 Hour Rule is a fascinating concept.  To recap for the 10,000th time (see how I did that), it states that to reach expert status in any field you must perform 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.  The ‘rule’ was proposed by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in this paper and popularised by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Coyle, who wrongly and annoyingly receive credit for it.  Not surprisingly, it has caused quite a lot of debate with nearly everyone missing the point.  A lot of people, for example The Dan Plan, have interpreted the number as a prescriptive figure, practice for 10,000 hours and you will be an expert.  Others, for example Coyle, have interpreted the research to mean there is no such thing as talent.  For me the point was always the deliberate practice part: if you want to be great, you have practice hard!  Just practicing isn’t enough.  The idea that there is no such thing as talent too ludicrous to seriously consider, but the practice part… that is where it’s at.

Hardly surprisingly, there has been a backlash against the 10,000 Hour Rule.  Sport scientists have been vocal in that criticism, without reaching a wide audience.  However, the ‘against’ argument has now hit Gladwell and Coyle’s turf in the form of the book “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein.  I haven’t read the book so can’t comment on it, but it has inspired some interesting commentary.  One vice chairman of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup has had his mind changed.  After initially accepting Gladwell’s thesis (I know it’s not really Gladwell’s, but you know what I mean), he now accepts Epstein’s. That a non expert has his opinion formed by the thing that he has most recently read is hardly earth shattering, in fact it is a well known psychological phenomenon (see Kahneman, Daniel).  What is interesting is Gladwell’s response to the new ‘information’.

Writing in ‘The New Yorker’, Gladwell makes a few really good points.  The first one is about averages.  An average of 10,000 hours means three people could need 3,000, 12,000 and 15,000 hours and the average would still be 10,000.  Secondly, he talks about using the word ‘elite’ misleadingly.  There are many examples quoted of individuals who have reached ‘elite’ level with less than prescribed amount of deliberate practice but who are not really elite.  A National Team member is not actually elite in the context of this discussion unless he is among the best in the world.  And activities in which the population of participants is small will certainly produce many, many outliers (no pun intended) who reached the highest level with little input.  However, the most interesting point he makes is that all of the original research on the topic, and most of Gladwell’s book on it, is focussed on cognitive skills, not physical skills, such as those needed to perfect chess and music.  Nothing there has changed.

I never bought the 10,000 hour thing because as a volleyball coach, I have accumulated enough experience to know that not all top players needed 10,000 hours or anywhere near it to get to the top.  However, Gladwell refocusses on the cognitive skills component of the discussion.  And it (finally) dawned on me that the ‘exceptions’ to the rule are all spikers. There are two positions in volleyball in which the very best players typically don’t reach their peak until they are in their 30’s: setters and middle blockers, ie the positions that require the highest cognitive levels.  So the exceptions are not really exceptions at all.  10,000 hours it is.


    1. Thanks for the link, it´s an interesting article. I would agree with Gladwell however that his work is not intended to be scholarly. I would add that it is only a problem when you pull single ideas out of a text and apply them in ways they were not intended. That is a fault of the reader. And Gladwell in the end is only making interesting observations. He never says that there is no such thing as talent, which others do.
      It does seem however that Ericsson is not blameless in how his original work is (mis)interpreted.


      1. Thanks, I had not seen this, and it’s a fascinating discussion. The writers have an excellent point about making assertions based on only part of a body of research, which is true in any field. However, I do have to point out that Ericsson’s study of violinists and pianists, which they cite, did not claim 10,000 hours as the level needed for mastery. (The full text of that study is linked in my post as well.)


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