10,000 Hours: Absolute Threshold for Expertise?

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Isabel Mora, Chief Copy Editor & Opinion Editor

According to Malcolm Gladwell, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Few people disagree with this view, as the importance of practice in improving a skill is usually taken as a universal truth. However, is there a specific amount of practice one must perform to achieve absolute mastery? In other words, is there a specific threshold of practice one must surpass to be considered an expert? According to Gladwell and multiple scientists, there is. The 10,000-hour rule, first introduced by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, references 10,000 as the magic number of practice hours an individual must perform to become an expert. However, despite the extensive analysis and research that has been done around the 10,000-hour rule, many have claimed it should not be used as a common rule of thumb. True, the theory is an oversimplification and does not take into consideration multiple factors regarding expertise. Nevertheless, in cognitively-demanding fields, when combined with talent, luck, and special circumstances, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is an adequate threshold to achieve expertise. 

Primarily, the 10,000-hour rule only holds for cognitively demanding fields, such as chess and music, as mastery in easy tasks can be achieved rapidly. Cognitively complex activities, which usually occur in challenging and competitive fields, require a long list of situations, possibilities, and scenarios to be experienced and processed. As stated by neurologist Daniel Levitin, “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number [10,000] comes up again and again. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.” It’s in these fields where the 10,000-hour rule is valid. Technically speaking, the brain needs a vast amount of time, close to 10 years, or the equivalent of 10,000 hours, to completely master a challenging skill. Demanding fields face constant changes and improvements, on top of intense competition, which explains why expertise cannot be obtained faster. Some, such as reporter David Epstein, have tried to debunk the 10,000-hour rule by citing instances in which people have achieved mastery in a shorter period. For example, some Australians made the winter Olympic team in skeleton after a few hundred practice runs. However, the examples cited by Epstein reference simple tasks, which do not require extensive cognitive abilities. Thus, the 10,000-hour rule is not invalidated by this evidence. On the contrary, as no instances of mastery in cognitively demanding fields are cited, the evidence serves to prove how expertise in such fields is only achieved after substantial hours of practice. Essentially, and exemplified by neurological evidence, the 10,000-hour rule does hold for challenging fields, whereas it can be easily disproved for simple skills.  

Furthermore, to consider the 10,000-hour rule as valid, it’s essential to examine the type of preparation performed during this extended time, as not any practice suffices to achieve expertise. Deliberate practice is a special type of training that is purposeful and systematic. Instead of mindless repetition, it seeks improved performance through focused attention and constant feedback. As an example, consider Benjamin Franklin, who mastered the art of writing through deliberate practice. As a child, Franklin went through famous publications line by line and wrote down every sentence’s meaning. He then rewrote each article in his own words and compared his version to the original. It’s indisputable that practice leads to progress. Regardless, expertise can only be achieved through the performance of the deliberate practice. Essentially, this means that it’s no use to train for 10,000 hours if during this time the individual simply engages in a mindless activity without considerate effort and desire to improve. Within this realm of types of practices, the 10,000-hour rule becomes an oversimplification. In earlier scientific publications, and even in Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s understood that 10,000 hours of any type of practice suffice to become an expert. However, this is not the case. It’s key to engage in a strategic and focused practice on the specific skill and field one seeks to improve. Thus, when considering the ample differences between skills, and the different types of practice they require, the 10,000-hour rule is only a valid threshold to achieve expertise if it refers to 10,000 hours of deliberate, skill-focused practice.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the 10,000-hour rule is only effective if it’s coupled with talent, luck, and special circumstances. 10 years of practice is a lot of time, especially if one wants to achieve expertise at a young age to become extremely successful and competitive in a specific field. As stated by Gladwell, People who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible.” For example, consider Bill Gates’ journey to becoming a software expert. His parents’ wealthy background, combined with the recent formation of a computer club at his private school and the chance to test a new programming software at a local college, allowed Gates to surpass 10,000 hours of practice before 20. This example serves to demonstrate the role of luck in the 10,000-hour rule. One must be born in the right place, at the right time, to have the perfect set-up to achieve expertise. In Gates’ case, this meant being a curious teenager exactly when the first computers were being developed. Of course, innate skills and genetics are also a factor to consider. Experts are a combination of talent and extensive practice. It’s almost impossible to become a master, even after 10,000 hours, without at least some genetic makeup in favor. Regardless, deliberate practice and luck always play a greater role. With this in mind, to become an expert, one must always combine 10,000 hours of practice with luck and talent. 

Overall, the 10,000-hour rule is meant to guide the amount of practice necessary to become an expert. As it seeks to fit expertise in every field, it’s often seen as an oversimplification that is not valid. However, in cognitively demanding fields, and combined with luck and talent, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is definitely the threshold for becoming an expert.