10,000 hours

There’s a idea floating around that in order to become proficient in any skill you need to spend around 10,000 hours practicing it. This figure comes from a study undertaken by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, which found that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in almost any skill.

This idea was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, and the original point of the research, which focused on experts in different fields – i.e. virtuoso musicians, Olympic athletes and others who were at the top of their field, became a bit muddied. People came to believe that to learn a new skill well, not just to expert level, you need 10,000 hours of practice.

There’s some discussion of the 10,000 hour ‘rule’ here which quotes Dr Ericsson as saying, “Our research shows that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training before they win international competitions.” Another study by Gobet and Campitelli found that some chess grand masters had had at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, but some took a lot longer – up to 26 years, and others reached that level in 2 years. Then there were some people who had the 10,000 hours of practice, but only played at an intermediate level. This seems to suggest that practice alone may not be sufficient to become an expert.

According to Josh Kaufman, whose TED talk I found the other day, you don’t need 10,000 hours to learn a new skill, but instead can attain basic proficiency in about 20 hours. He thinks that first you have to make sure you have the materials, tools, books, etc you need to learn. Then you deconstruct the skill, working out exactly what your goals are and the steps you need to take to achieve them. Then you focus on learning and practicing those steps for about 20 hours, minimizing distractions. He did this for the ukulele, and believes that this approach works for any skill, including learning languages.

While this can work for the ukulele, a relatively easy instrument to learn, I somehow doubt it would work very well for more challenging instruments like the violin or piano, or for languages. In 20 hours you might acquire some basic proficiency of a language, or another skill, but it’s unlikely that you would good at it. There are exceptional people who can learn new skills very quickly, but for most of us it takes quite a bit longer.

One important part of Dr Ericsson’s findings was that your practice needs to deliberate. You need to focus on improving your performance and to notice any areas where you find difficult. When learning a language, for example, you might have trouble remembering how to form a particular tense, or with specific words or phrases. If you focus on such things, you can make more progress than if you don’t worry about them.

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6 Responses to 10,000 hours

  1. TJ says:

    I’m not sure this same rule will apply to learning a language as well. It highly depends, as I see it, on the processes in one’s mind.
    In high school I remember, we used to mock some of them nerds who take English just like mathematics – they build it block by block as if they were doing an equation, while for some of us English, after few trials and watching some TV, it just comes as is. I think this is what they call the “sense of the language” probably. In fact, I personally do have a problem with grammar but mainly because I know that I need to say “something” at “some situation” in “some tense” but never realized what is the grammar case and why do I need it here specifically. All of the grammar of English language came back to me in details when I decided to work a bit on my conlang, Ayvarith, in order to understand the details and structure of the language and how to build an artificial one. Technically, I don’t think I’ve passed 10,000 hours learning English deliberately!

  2. Eee says:

    Seems like he takes a lot of liberties in how he counts his hours. Researching and acquiring materials, planning how you are going to break down the learning process, setting goals and schedules—all that is just Preparing to Learn, but the actual Learning is guaranteed to take 20 hours max.

  3. dinahmow says:

    In isolation? I doubt it! I’ve always found the easiest way to learn is by exposure to the task; we may miss some of the finer points of grammar, but conversational language is more quickly acquired.

  4. Roger Bowden says:

    I think that one size does not fit all skills/gifts /people. What definition of expert does he use?. Is an expert someone who knows everything, more than most or more than me. If the first then the expert does not exist at all. I am sure that Mozart did not require 10.000 hours of practice before at the age of 4 he wrote a harpsichord concerto. better than I and many others could do, probably already an expert but I bet he still needed more than 20 hours.

  5. Ronny says:

    This seems to be a trend lately. Everyone’s figuring out that doing things thoughtfully provides much better results than mindless studying/working of any kind. Makes sense.

  6. Simon says:

    Roger – by expert he means people who are virtuoso musicians, grand master chess players and Olympic athletes – i.e. at the top of their field.

    I’ve seen some videos in which Malcolm Gladwell talks about expertise and the 10,000 hour rule. He mentions that even Mozat didn’t produce world class compositions before the age of 20 or so. He started composing at an early age, but his early works weren’t nearly as good as his later ones.