10,000 Hours of Practice

Outliers is a classic book on what makes up success by Malcolm Gladwell. He argues that highly successful people – the outliers – do not succeed just by simply working harder. Being there at the right place at the right time, among other factors, is critical too.

Gladwell describes the “Rule of 10,000” which says that it takes about 10,000 hours of practicing a task for someone to achieve mastery in it. It can be music, computer programming, writing, sports – anything (and certainly for knowledge work!).

“… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”  — “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

ImageDoing the maths, practicing for 40-hours in a week and 180 hours in a month, it takes about 5 years to achieve mastery in it. Obviously, what it means to be a master and what the world of mastery is can vary, but in general the rule models the effort required to become really good at something. Gladwell gives examples of The Beatles, Bill Gates and Paul Allen to prove the theory. All of them put in 10,000 of practicing music or programming before they really became masters at it.

However, this is not all. Success is not just a direct result of adequate effort put in. Not everyone who practices for 10,000 hours and becomes a master, succeeds too. Success needs more than that.

Gladwell postulates that to be a success, these 10,000 hours need to be sandwiched between two events. First is the availability of an opportunity where someone can actually practice. Beatles got a chance to practice in Hamburg’s bars for long hours over many years. Gates got access to University of Washington’s computer terminal (a rare resource) to be able to learn programming. They obviously made the most of that. The second event is availability of an opportunity close to when they become masters, to really capitalize on their new mastery. Beatles made it big in Britain after their long hours of practice in Germany, because there was a market for the kind of music they were doing at that time. For Gates the PC market was just getting hot and he had the necessary skills to make the most of it. They were ready.

The outliers certainly need to be able to dare to take these opportunities – whether at the start or the end – but the availability of these opportunities is a requisite for them to make it big. Had Gates finished his practice a few years later, someone else may already have made it big doing what he did. He may have still been successful, but may not have been an outlier that he is.

Some may call it luck – and rightly so. More importantly, it’s a lesson in recognizing and availing these opportunities and putting in the sweat!


4 thoughts on “10,000 Hours of Practice

  1. Requires very critical long-sightedness for this – but in all of these scenarios, neither of the outlier were conscious about what they were doing. They were simply following their heart – and as the old saying goes “where there is a will there is a way”. As far as the Beatles are concerned, they were playing in the bars what people liked to play – and that doesn’t change very drastically (or they would have been out of business. For example, if today there is a hype of Rap music in local clubs in Pakistan, and I start doing it… and within a year that fades away, no one would come to my show and it will be lost anyway. Continuing to do that would be a mistake on my end). Similarly, Bill Gates did it because that’s what all the hype was about. Colleges were starting to give CS degrees and the smartest went there – he wanted to do that and in the middle realised that he’s so good, he doesn’t need to continue.

    Similarly, there are people like Jobs – who was roughly the same age as Gates, in the same region, in the same market – failed when Gates succeeded and succeeded where Gates (or Microsoft) failed.

    Very grey discussion – though I personally totally agree with Gladwell and that’s what I recommended to younger ones: To get out of the “microwave mentality” and work hard and long. More on “microwave mentality” later sometime 🙂

    • It certainly is grey. And to be fair, this is just one of the components of being an Outlier that Gladwell laid out. It may not cover everything but the primary premise seems logical – to be a success, you need persistence and (this and is important) opportunities. Agreed, that it does not cover all scenarios, there are certainly exceptions. But it’s a model and as they say about models – “all models are wrong, some are just useful” 🙂 This is a useful one …

      Do tell me about microwave mentality.

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