Forget The 10,000-Hour Rule—How To Really Improve At Any Skill

The popular 10,000-Hour Rule claims that it takes 10,000 hours of working at a skill to become an expert. But research suggests that to become awesome at a skill, it's not about quantity of time spent, it's about quality.

If you've spent any time wondering at what makes people successful, you've probably come across 'the 10,000 Rule,' popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Put roughly, the rule posits that after 10,000 hours of working at a skill--coding, tweeting, dancing--you'll become an expert. But research suggests that the rule has a major misconception: to become awesome at a skill, it's not about quantity of time spent, it's about quality.

Harvard psychologist and Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman helps us to see why. In his new book Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence, he says:

(The 10,000-hour rule is) only half true. If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

As noted at Brain Pickings, the key, then, is to identify the drivers that actually improve that quality of the time we spend trying to get better--like changing the way we practice, recalibrating our concentration, and making room for recovery. Here's how to know if you are actually improving at a skill:

1. You're deliberate about your practice

Psychologists and productivity nerds obsess over deliberate practice: the kind of practice where you're pushing right against the boundaries of your ability.

The amateur pianist will sit down and play the songs that are easy for them to succeed at, which makes their practice more fun. The professional however, will work on the parts she's struggling with, even though there's way more difficulty involved.

2. You're within a feedback loop

Feedback has been called "the essence of intelligence." So if we want to be smart about deliberate practice, we need to structure ourselves for feedback. A lot of this depends on the environment: if you're a ballet dancer, for instance, you can get feedback from a mirror. But where in an office can we find such reflections?

Often it's in the metrics. If you create content for the web, then you've been schooled in responding to the rhythm of pageviews and unique visitors, which provide a quasi-tyrannical force of feedback. Other options are less mechanical: a human who can evaluate your work and point out your spots for improvement is invaluable, be they mentor, sponsor, or coach.

"Every world-class sports champion has a coach," Goleman says. So maybe we should too.

3. You're rarely coasting

Some people (like this writer) who grew up in flat parts of the country are terrified by things like skiing, because mountains are steep. Goleman provides hope for us, as after about 50 hours of practice with a skill like skiing, we can reach "good enough" levels of performance, allowing us to go through the motions without falling on our faces.

This, too, presents a problem: if we stick in that pleasant "good enough" spot, we're not going to get any better. So even if we put 10,000 hours of time into the slopes, we won't be getting anywhere near Sochi.

4. You get rest--which gives you better focus

The quality of the attention that we give to an activity is a major theme within Focus. To truly do deliberate practice, we need to be able to give it our best attention. The problem, however, is that we can only sustain attention for so long until we get fatigued--like the decisions we make throughout the day.

Thus the need for rest. Our practicing happens in our brains which happen to be a part of our bodies, which means that we need to allow ourselves the space to recover. Like Tim Ferriss, the author of the 4 Hour Workweek, told us:

You need stimulus and recovery in mental work in the same way that you need stimulus and recovery for sports. Just as you have physical over-training in the weight room, there is mental over-training with too much time in front of a screen or thousands of small minute to minute decisions over time with no rest. This contributes to biological duress. When this happens you're not adapting, you're actually degrading performance.

Hat tip: Brain Pickings

[Photo by Ryan McGuire | via Gratisography]

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6 Comments

  • Chris Reich

    Nobody (except perhaps in sports) is looking for perfect. Learn. Broaden your skill set. You will find as you get better at new things, you also get better at what you already know how to do.

  • Larry Boyer

    The 10,000 hour rule long predates Malcolm Gladwell. It would be nice to see some research into where the rule comes from and why someone came up with 10,000 hours to begin. Sure, quality matters, but hour of quality practices does not an expert make. Do you really know that it's not 10,000 hours of high quality work?

  • Brilliant article. Practice makes better. In my sport, I postpone the 10.000 hour rule, whenever I find new ways to improve. I really like how you presented number 1. As a football freestyle artist (as I am), I constantly seek out tricks and things that I am less good at and try to improve them, to be able to obtain a high level in all aspects of the sport. Spot on! PWG

  • Excellent points and I'm glad this perspective is starting to get some traction out there. There's an old saying "practice makes permanent, not perfect," so yes, the quality of the practice makes all the difference. Those of us who do coaching have heard clients ask if they have to practice a new habit or skill 10,000 hours in order to change! I see the same thing in the gym. After decades of working out, I'm still looking for ways to challenge myself and make it harder, not easier. But I look around at those who are essentially training in the 10,000 hour mindset and they never change, never improve. We can get better at what we already do well, which is comfortable but gets us nowhere. Or we can be deliberate in our practice, as you say here, and actually make some progress. And isn't that the point?

  • Larry Boyer

    Yes quality matters. What's missing here is the research where this comes from to begin with (Malcom Gladwell, a reporter, didn't come up with this number). It's 10,000 hours of quality work. 1 hour of quality practice doesn't help either. It's BOTH Quality and Quantity.