Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The 10,000 hour theory

A colleague of mine and I had an interesting discussion today. He just got through reading The Outliers. In the book, the author, Malcolm Gladwell, makes the claim that a person has to spend 10,000 hours on something before they truly master it.

My colleague made some claims from the book to make the case:

To reach 10,000 hours, you have to spend 8 hours a day 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year for almost 5 years. Almost nobody spends that much time really working toward perfecting their craft. The ones that do ultimately become among the best in their field. This has some profound consequences, one of the most profound being that what matters is dedication and drive, not so much so in-born natural talent.

Some examples he used: Mozart is often touted as a child prodigy because he composed music at such an early age. But the stuff he produced at a young age is not that good. It was only later in life, say in his late teens, when he produced his masterworks, and by then he had already put in 10,000 hours in perfecting his craft.

Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft. But he had access to computers (through lucky coincidence) and basically put in roughly 10,000 programming hours of his own time before he even dreamed of starting Microsoft.

The difference between a musician who goes on to becoming a classical performer and one who decides to teach the instrument instead of perform is the first tends to spend over 10,000 hours of practice. (Did the latter instead spend 10,000 hours teaching? Probably not, there's a market out there for less than masterful music teachers, there's no market for substandard performers, but I know there are music teachers who have mastered the craft of teaching out there).

My colleague also mentioned how as a parent, he wants to nurture his children toward mastering a craft, to work toward getting 10,000 hours of practice time on a specific skill.

The key is to pick one thing, an area of emphasis, the earlier the better. Because there is literally not enough time available to become a master in two things. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get there. Really, when you're young, still living at home, still enjoying an almost 100% parent subsidy, that's the ideal time to get a big chunk of those 10,000 hours under your belt.

I'm not sure, maybe its me, but there's something oddly reassuring about this idea of this too easy to remember little formula that's available to practically anyone with enough desire to become masterful.

One more caveat, I haven't read the book yet, but now I will, so I guess I probably need to actually read it for myself before I get too excited about the idea.


H said...

So, by this theory, we should easily be able to become a master parent by the time our oldest child is 5, right?! What is the theory behind quantity vs. quality practice?

tempe turley said...


All of my knowledge from this specific topic has come from a 30 minute conversation from a friend at work.

I do address this in my part III post. But definitely I believe quality practice can be counted. Just doing the time doesn't count.