Ten Thousand Hours

You have no idea how long these lizards practiced.

You have no idea how long these lizards practiced.

The 2008 book The Outliers presented the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something.  The author, Malcolm Gladwell, was already bad enough at including qualifiers (he quotes a neurologist saying “No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time”*), but the idea has filtered into our internet articles and Macklemore lyrics in its most basic form: To be good at something, you must practice it for 10,000 hours.  Period.  And this idea needs to go away.

Seeing as I’m not sitting on a pile of sociological data, I’m not going to focus on whether this theory is true in an objective sense (spoiler: it isn’t; check out this article for the short explanation and this article for the mathy one)**, but rather on the take-home message.  At heart, it’s nothing but another “secret to success,” the sort of idea that people gravitate to because they want a formula that they can follow that will guarantee that they will get ahead.  This one is more realistic and constructive than most–and also harder to disprove–because at least it revolves around hard work rather than something silly like having the right attitude (and, consequently, few people are going to practice for 10,000 hours just to test the theory).  But the fact remains: There is no secret to success and 10,000 hours of practice isn’t going to guarantee it.


These dogs weren’t BORN with synchronized hovering skills.

There are two sides to this idea, one harmless and one not.  The first side is “If you don’t practice for 10,000 hours, you won’t become successful.”  This sounds like it could be true, though of course it isn’t (we probably all know someone ridiculously talented or ridiculously lucky who succeeded with no apparent effort at all).  The worst possible outcome here is someone gifted enough to be lazy instead choosing to work hard, though, so I’ll give it a pass.

The other side is “If you practice for 10,000 hours, you will become successful.”  This idea is both clearly untrue and clearly harmful.  Gladwell’s oft-repeated example that the Beatles chalked up 10,000 hours playing in the clubs of Hamburg is misleading; as Paul McCartney points out, plenty of other bands played just as many hours in those clubs and didn’t become the Beatles.  But the narrative leads to the conclusion that, if you get the requisite amount of practice, you will become successful, and that if you aren’t successful, it’s because you’ve failed to practice enough.

It takes years to become a master of disguise.

It takes years to become a master of disguise.

So in the end, the 10,000 hour theory becomes just another way of framing the world as a meritocracy.  After all, you wouldn’t begrudge someone success if they spent a decade of hard work to achieve it, would you?  Since success is defined as the result of many hours of work, one’s success is sufficient proof of one’s hard work and, therefore, one’s deserving of that success.  Conversely, one’s lack of success is proof that one didn’t put in enough practice, so there’s no real possibility of injustice and no reason to ever regret an outcome.

Let’s not miss the forest for the trees: Practice is good.  Practicing a skill for many hours will almost certainly make you improve.  Practice is often a component of success.  But so are inherent talent, cronyism, extenuating circumstances, and plain luck.  There is no secret to success because there’s a limited amount of it.  We can’t all become famous rock stars, billionaire magnates, or high-ranking politicians, and who does or doesn’t make it into these roles will never be deterministic, let alone dependent on a single factor, 10,000 hours or otherwise.

*Here’s one.  That took me seconds to find.

*Since I’m a scientist, I’ll at least point out a few uncontrolled variables: Are people more likely to enjoy something they tend to be good at, and therefore more likely to spend a lot of time on it?  Do people tend to quit something when they realize they’re no good at it, and therefore fail to reach the 10,000 hour threshold?  What about kids who were forced to take up something they didn’t want to do, and therefore had no interest in either practicing or being good?

Images found here, here, and here.


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