scorecardMalcolm Gladwell Explains What Everyone Gets Wrong About His Famous '10,000 Hour Rule'
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Malcolm Gladwell Explains What Everyone Gets Wrong About His Famous '10,000 Hour Rule'

Malcolm Gladwell Explains What Everyone Gets Wrong About His Famous '10,000 Hour Rule'
StrategyStrategy2 min read

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In his 2008 book "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell wrote that "ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness."

His examples included:

  • Bill Gates, who was able to start coding as a teen since he attended a progressive Seattle high school
  • the Beatles, who played eight-hour gigs in German clubs long before they invaded America

Those opportunities to practice early and often - along with precocious talent - allowed them to respectively invent software and modern rock and roll.

Or so the argument goes.

Based on studies in elite performance, Gladwell contended that it's "an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields ... you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good."

Gladwell's message - people aren't born geniuses, they get there through effort - was seized upon by popular culture.

Macklemore wrote a hit song about it, rapping that "the greats weren't great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot."

With that ubiquity, Gladwell drew academic haterade. Harvard prof and "Emotional Intelligence" author Daniel Goleman said the 10,000 hour was "only half true," while a group of psychologists have rejected the rule outright. K. Anders Ericsson, the scholar who Gladwell based his argument, around came out against the over-application of the 10,000 rule.

But in today's Ask Me Anything on Reddit, Gladwell is saying that the over-glossy interpretation of the rule - that practicing 10,000 hours guarantees success - is a misunderstanding.

He writes:

There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn't apply to sports. And practice isn't a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I'll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.

While you might want to argue that Gladwell is the guy responsible for the oversimplification, it's helpful that he debunks his debunkers.

He doesn't address why exactly the 10,000 hour rule doesn't stick to sports, but we can infer that it's genetic - one reason four-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant is unguardable because he has a 7'2'' wingspan paired with a 6'9'' height.

Then there's the larger matter of how you practice. In "So Good They Can't Ignore You," author Cal Newport says that what makes ridiculously successful people so successful is they're experts at practicing - they can push themselves to the exact limit of their skillset and thus expand their abilities day after day. If you're not expanding yourself in such a fashion - called deliberate practice in the org psych lit - you'll never be ridiculously successful.

Or, in other words, an outlier.