In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the 10,000 hour rule. Essentially what it says is that if you spend 10,000 hours practicing something you will eventually become extraordinarily good at it. That makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Practice makes perfect, right?

Well not necessarily.

The examples used are in fact outliers, as the book implies, and therefore is not a rule of general application. One example used is professional violin players. A study showed that when they looked at children who started playing at an early age and then followed them through to age twenty something, the really elite players averaged 10,000 hours of practice while the average players averaged about 4000. There was a direct correlation between those who practiced a lot and the level of playing they achieved.

Good science one might think. There did not seem to be anyone who achieved elite status who somehow got there with less practice. In other words natural talent didn’t come into play. The trouble is — it doesn’t count the number of kids who got to age nine and figured out they were never going to be any good at this. Or those who did the 10,000 hours of practice but never got good enough to actually make a living at it in a symphony. It certainly didn’t count the kids who really loved to practice the violin but were basically tone deaf. Certainly, 10,000 hours would not have made me into a decent saxophone player.

I have no doubt that to get really good at something you have to do it a lot. But, what I do doubt is that simply doing a thing over and over will necessarily make you good. The 10,000 hours thing may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition.

Take boxing, for example. I’m pretty sure that I — or Malcolm Gladwell, for that matter — could get in the ring for 10,000 hours but all we would likely get from it is beaten to a pulp. There are plenty of people who have written a million words of shit — to misquote Steven King — and whose millionth and one word is still shit.

I’m not denigrating hard work. Hard work is important. So is passion. So is talent. And so is luck. It is one of the great unpleasant facts of our winner take everything society: hard work alone will not lead to the good life. In fact, hard work, those magic 10,000 hours, might lead to no life at all. Because when you spend 10,000 hours doing one thing, there’s not a lot of time left to do anything else — like having a normal relationship or an appreciation for anything outside the rehearsal hall.

But that’s ten minutes.


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