When most people think about deliberate practice, it’s probably in the form of the 10.000 hours rule invented by Malcom Gladwell. Hell, a lot of people who’ve never heard of deliberate practice, or deep practice as it’s sometimes called, know the 10.000 hour rule.
The rule states that: With 10.000 hours of practice, you can master any skill.
The thing is (and you probably guessed this from the title), the 10.000 hour rule isn’t real.
There’s a reason why I chose to write “invented by Malcom Gladwell” in that first sentence instead of “popularized” or “discovered”. Gladwell might claim that the rule is based on research (specifically research into expertise conducted by Dr. Anders Ericsson and colleagues), but what that research really show isn’t that 10.000 hours of practice will make you an expert. But I’ll get back to that later.
It’s easy to see why Gladwell chose the 10.000 hours as the focus of his writing. It’s catchy; it’s easy to understand; and there’s something inherently right about it. No matter what you think of the role of talent vs. hard work, most people realize that it does require a lot of time and work to master any complex skill.
But if you stop to think about it, you’ll realize there’s something wrong. If 10.000 hours of practice makes an expert, then I should be a master guitar player. I may not practice all that much anymore, but I started picking away at the strings almost two decades ago. And why don’t I feel like I’m anywhere near becoming an expert at my job? I’ve been doing it for three years now, eight hours a day. I should be halfway there. And what about my more experienced colleagues? Some of them have 20, 30, 40.000 hours of experience in the trunk, so why aren’t all of them experts?
What’s missing from the equation is the quality of the practice. First of all, when you’re working, you’re hardly practicing at all. When we focus on the end product, we do things the way we know how to instead of challenging ourselves by doing the things that we’re less sure of. So most of our work doesn’t really qualify as practice.
On top of that, not all practice is created equally. When I sat down to practice on my guitar, I used to pick a song I had trouble with and try to play it through, over and over again. Someone who was studying to become a professional guitar player would pick the exact part of the song they had trouble with, practice that part, get feedback from a teacher on how they were doing and what to do differently, and then go back and repeat until they got it right. This is deliberate practice, and it’s mentally exhausting, which why it’s not how must of us practice when doing our hobbies. It’s just not fun.
This brings us back to Dr. Ericsson’s research. He studied a group of German music students and found that on average the best of them had practiced for 10.000 hours when they were 18, way more than the tier 2 students, which had again practiced way more than the tier 3 students. But the point here was that all of the students engaged in deliberate practice, so the determining factor of how good they were became how much they practiced. Besides, none of them were experts at 18 years old. Better than most of us will ever be, sure, but not professional musician yet.
Gladwell had to have known this when he was done studying the research that he would later base his 10.000 hour rule on, which is one of the reason why it’s so annoying that the rule won’t die. That and it grossly misrepresents the effort it takes to become an expert by neglecting the most important part, the quality of the practice.
And still, the rule isn’t all bad. It has inspired thousands of people to put in the hours to improve whatever skill it is they want to become better at, shown them that expertise isn’t just for the talented few (a group which no one really seem to be a part of). Yet many of these people will eventually plateau way before they ever reach their goal if they don’t understand the importance of deliberate practice.