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Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers”, and the 10,000 hour rule

by Michael Nielsen on November 18, 2008

All three of Malcolm Gladwell’s books pose a conundrum for the would-be reviewer. The conundrum is this: while the books have many virtues, none of the books make a watertight argument for their central claims. Many scientists, trained to respect standards of proof above all else, don’t like this style. A colleague I greatly respect told me he thought Gladwell’s previous book, Blink , was “terrible”; it didn’t meet his standards of proof. Judge Richard Posner wrote a scathing review criticizing Blink on the same grounds.

Gladwell’s gift as a writer is not for justification and proof of his claims. What Gladwell does have is an extraordinary gift to use stories to explain abstract ideas in a way that is vivid and memorable, a way that brings those abstract ideas quickly to mind at later need. This shamanic gift is dangerous, for if you read his books credulously, it leaves you open to believing ideas that may be false. It’s also incredibly valuable, for what you learn you internalize deeply. In my opinion, this more than makes up for whatever Gladwell’s books lack in rigorous justification.

I say all this so you know what to expect from Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Outliers is a vivid and memorable exploration of a single question: what makes some individuals so successful? It’s not a book that lends itself to a brief summary, for to summarize is to lose the essence of the stories which make it an enjoyable and memorable read. For this reason, I won’t review the book here, beyond saying that I strongly recommend the book, with the caveats above: read sceptically, and check the original literature when in doubt!

Instead, I’d like to zero in on one of the main themes of the book, an idea that has over the past few years become widely known and influential. This is the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to really master a subject area or skill. The idea dates back to work done by Herb Simon in the 1970s. It’s been developed and publicized much further in the decades since, notably by one of Simon’s postdoctoral mentees, Anders Ericsson.

There are, of course, many provisos to the 10,000 hour rule. As just one example, to acquire mastery in an area, it’s not enough to just practice for 10,000 hours; the person practicing must constantly strive to get better. Someone who practices without pushing themselves will plateau, no matter how many hours they practice. I suspect many scientists fall afoul of this proviso, putting in enormous hours, but mostly doing administrative or drudge work which doesn’t extend their abilities.

On the surface, the rule is quite intimidating. We hear of the young Mozart, practising music with ferocious intensity for years, or of Bobby Fischer’s utter obsession with chess. Gladwell describes the similar obsession Bill Gates and Bill Joy had with programming as young men. How can one match this level of devotion? 10,000 hours is a lot of time, and most studies have found that it requires 10 or more years to put in this time, given the other demands of life. Must we commit ourselves to 10 years of deliberate practice in a single area, or content ourselves with mediocrity?

One of the main claims of Outliers is that putting in 10,000 hours of practice is a prerequisite for great achievement. I believe this is the wrong way of thinking about the relationship between achievement and the 10,000 hour rule. A clue to a better way comes from some examples which to some extent disprove the claim.

Consider the physicist Werner Heisenberg. He studied physics and mathematics as a student, from 1920 to 1923, and from 1923 on concentrated all his attention on physics. In 1926, he discovered quantum mechanics, one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. His more famous (but less important) discovery of the uncertainty principle followed not long after, in 1927.

Heisenberg was not even close to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice when he discovered quantum mechanics. Instead, he’d explored a broad range of areas in physics – his thesis, written not long before his great discoveries, was about the completely different area of turbulence – and gradually built up a broad range of basic competencies. Most importantly, his exploration let him figure out what area of physics was most interesting. At the time, that area was atomic physics, a field in turmoil as all the old ideas failed, and it became clear that radical new ideas were needed. This meant that the skills painstakingly acquired by the established physicists of the time – people who were far more skilled than Heisenberg – didn’t do those people much good. Heisenberg could enter a relatively level playing field, and jump ahead of the established experts. Having grabbed the intellectual lead, he was then well placed to make breakthrough after breakthrough, learning his craft in real time, achieving mastery in the crucible of real discovery.

A second example is the mathematician Gregory Chaitin. As a teenager, Chaitin published a series of seminal papers establishing a new area of mathematics now known as algorithmic information theory. Unbeknown to Chaitin, similar ideas were simultaneously developed and published by two other people: a professional American mathematician named Ray Solomonoff, and by one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, the Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov. Chaitin was a curious and bright teenager, but he had nowhere near 10,000 hours of experience in mathematics. He didn’t need it. He was developing a new field of mathematics from scratch, and what was needed was basic technical competence, lots of imagination, and some chutzpah.

A third example is the discovery of the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs. This is one of the great paleontological discoveries of the 20th century, but it was made by two non-palaeontologists, Walter Alvarez, a geologist, and Luis Alvarez, a physicist, neither of whom had much experience in palaeontology.

A fourth and final example is the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson had only studied biology for 6 years, and Crick for 5 years. Again, it seems very unlikely that they were anywhere near satisfying the 10,000 hour rule.

Given these examples, how should we think about the relationship between great achievement and the 10,000 hour rule?

It’s certainly clear that great achievement is possible without putting in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s perhaps even relatively common among the greatest discoveries within science, and would not be surprised if this were also true in some areas of technology.

I believe it’s a mistake to focus on building up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as some kind of long-range goal. Instead, pick a set of skills that you believe are broadly important, and that you enjoy working on, a set of skills where deliberate practice gives rapid intrinsic rewards. Work as hard as possible on developing those skills, but also explore in neighbouring areas, and (this is the part many people neglect) gradually move in whatever direction you find most enjoyable and meaningful. The more enjoyable and meaningful, the less difficult it will be to put in the time that leads to genuine mastery. The great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra said it well:

Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.

The only exception to this strategy is if your heart is truly set on working in an established field, doing work that builds on that tradition. If you want to become a classical pianist, or a writer, or a string theorist, you probably need to put in your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Note: Outliers goes on sale today, November 18, 2008.

From → Books

  1. Todd permalink

    Having read the book, the 10,000 hours is not a rule for mastery of the skill. What Gladwell indicated was that each subject in examples across a wide sphere of human endeavors received a special opportunity to build up 10,000 hours of experience. So circumstances were the driving force for each individual or group to receive special training, that later became important in order to achieve success.

    Jewish lawyers in NYC had 1,000s of hours of practice in mergers and acquisitions, because it was considered 2nd rate work at the time. When mergers and acquisitions became growth business for NYC corporate clients, Jewish law firms had already put in the practice and were thus able to seize the opportunity.

    Bill Gates/Paul Allen (Microsoft), Bill Joy (Sun), and Steve Jobs/Wozniak (Apple) had the opportunity to program expensive mainframe computers where no one else in their peer-group had these opportunities. When the computer world changed and became less reliant on mainframes, these individuals already had the skills to go forward and dominate. All were born within 8 months of each-other in 1955/56.

    So the 10,000 hour rule is more about having special opportunities to practice in advance of the opportunity presenting itself. They were set apart before opportunity for success became apparent and the need for a particular skill was desirable.

  2. Alex permalink

    ANYONE who focuses 10,000 hours on ANYTHING is going to be at least pretty decent at it. To meet this goal in ten years equals about 2 3/4 hours a day at said activity. Every day. That is almost the same hours as having a parttime job. Since most people sleep 8 hours a day, and let’s take out another 2 hours for chores, driving, eating, bathroom time, and other necessities to make the remaining 14 hours run smoothly, that means just under 20% of your active life is going to be spent on this activity, for 10 solid years. Can you imagine practicing piano, studing a language, writing, painting, lifting weights, or whatever, for 20% of your active day for 10 years and you DON’T wind up showing some expertise?

  3. lala permalink

    This blog post is old, but I would like to chime in anyway if you don’t mind. I don’t find your rebuttal compelling mainly because your examples weren’t people who were experts in their field. They were people who came up with outstanding ideas.

    Take a seventeen-year-old who studies dance for three years. At the age of twenty, she comes up with a most amazing dance step. This dance step is so beautiful that it becomes widely used in ballets. Does this mean she is as good at dancing as twenty-year-olds who have been dancing hours a day since they were five? No, she simply came up with an outstanding idea. This seems analogous to the kinds of examples you are giving.

    Bill Gates particularly stands out, because the programming work that made him rich and famous was not his own. His genius was in recognizing the market value in work done by other programmers. Mostly great programmers who had no idea that their work had market value and who sadly got ripped off.

    Also bear in mind that something you have practiced in the past can give you a head start when you enter a new field. What about someone who is just starting to learn physics, but for the past fifteen years they have done the puzzle on the back of their cereal box at breakfast every morning? It still takes them 10,000 hours just like everyone else, but they had already put in a substantial portion of those hours doing other things.

    I think it’s also worth noting that studying is a skill in itself, which needs to be practiced and honed. So many people don’t realize this. People who don’t have study skills just think themselves to be slow and people who have developed excellent study skills have no idea that everyone else isn’t studying with the same ease. Someone who comes into a field already posessing excellent study skills may well be able to skip over a good portion of those 10,000 hours.

  4. Cracked link follower permalink

    The 10,000 hours are for an expert *skill-level*.

    You’re talking about *discoveries*.

  5. Aaron permalink

    Wow you guys! I really like the way Michael Nielsen has written this review, and me being a 17 year old who knows next to nothing about physics nor the human brain nor sociology, and was redirected to this review from a article: “The Ten Most Important Things ‘They’ Didn’t Teach You In School”, I am thoroughly impressed by the accuracy and the reasoning of your review and your argument with it. I am looking forward to reading this book though this review, and the comments thereof, were written and received nearly 2 years ago. I must admit within the additional argument concerning deeper values and interests in the comments section, I became lost to the point of it all and actual definition of what was occurring, obviously due to my inexperience and lack of apprehension of the english language (as you scientists are seemingly masters of using it in arguments such as these). It was terribly engrossing nontheless. I congratulate all of you for taking the time to discover and associate yourselves with such deep thinking! Truly inspiring I must say.

  6. Jeff permalink

    “Watson had only studied biology for 6 years, and Crick for 5 years. Again, it seems very unlikely that they were anywhere near satisfying the 10,000 hour rule.”

    You are undermining your entire thesis by supporting the book’s thesis. Watson and Crick were professional biologists, which means they were presumably doing this sort of work full time.

    40 hours in a work week x 52 weeks in a year = 2080 working hours in a year.

    10,000 hours will be accumulated in this fashion in just under 5 years. The author of this article doesn’t seem to grasp how long it takes to reach 10,000 hours. It seems very LIKELY that Watson and Crick were near satisfying this rule. My face is planted firmly in my palm.

  7. Justin M permalink

    Like “Cracked link follower,” I was directed here by an article from

    I have also very much enjoyed the rigor and quality of the grammar, vocabulary, and intelligent thinking here — both by Michael and by the various other post-ers here. What I have not seen observed by anyone yet (which is why I will post it now) is the neurological/skill-related links between a person’s eventual field of mastery and related (but not obviously related) skills/knowledge. This can result in an individual reaching 10,000 hours more quickly than observers conclude. (Essentially this expands the “10,000 hours in a specific field” idea to include training/practice/education that is not, on the surface, directly in that field).

    For example, at different times I have put hundreds or even thousands of hours each into the following (see if you can figure out ahead of time what they add up to):
    (1) Spreadsheet computations: budgeting, calculating student grades and creating related reports as a high school teacher, calculating antioxidant values in produce compared to their price per ounce to create an inexpensive “anti-cancer vegetable smoothie,” etc;
    (2) Stock market investing: reading financial literature by various authors, listening to quarterly financial reports, buying & selling according to experimental strategies, etc;
    (3) Music exposure: auditing college music theory, having meaningful discussions of music with actual musicians and composers, listening to countless hours of music while reflecting analytically on the lyrics and musical structure);
    (4) Language arts: getting a B.A. in English, reading various books while a youngster, playing many video games involving heavy character development, themes, and symbolism…

    So…any ideas yet? They might not seem related, but they all contribute VERY directly to one eventual skill I have in mind: computer-interface-based music composition. Managing a visual data spread of music is very similar (logically and visually) to various aspects of managing a spreadsheet. The ability to track musical note patterns and take advantage of them is neurologically similar to financial analysis (music is essentially an artistic expression of math). Creating song concepts and writing lyrics each require an acute understanding of language (whether intuitive, calculated, or both) which is developed by reading quality literature, playing intelligently-written games that develop abstract thinking, and the like. How directly did each of these contribute to my current musical endeavors? More so than not.

    So, if I have been working on using a computer to compose music for, say, 200 hours, I would say I do *not* have 9,800 hours left before I achieve a kind of Master-status. No, I’ve “practiced” for at least 7,000-8,000 hours already (over the last 20+ years) in neurologically-related activities and pursuits that directly shaped my mind for the current field/task. So that would mean I’d close in on it after another 1,800 to 2,800 hours, not 9,800.

    Basically, I’m supporting Gladwell’s thesis while challenging it at the same time. Yes, 10,000 hours is a good rule of thumb for mastery-practice. However, sometimes we are developing our minds for something (in our earlier years) that we have not identified yet, and will only discover later on what we have been prepared for. So individuals might reach that 10k mark more quickly than we realize.

  8. JVG permalink

    If I have learned one thing in my short time on this planet, it is that humans are remarkable.

    Obviously, 10,000 hours is a very long time by any standard. Yet, I would venture to say that we all have committed that amount of time in one way or another.

    We are the product of our environment. When we are passionate about something, we find the time and commit to it. The one thing that everyone has failed to realize is that the 10,000 hours is cumulative of all of our individual experiences. So in effect, even our down time away from our “passion” contributes to it’s eventual success.

    When you look in the mirror, the person that you see is not just yourself, but the ancestors that came before you and those that will come after you. The influences and teachings that they will provide or have provided made you who you are today and so in effect contribute to the 10,0000 hours that allowed you to excel. So even though you may not have 10,000 hours of training / exposure in a specific discipline, your cumulative experiences contributed to your success.

    It may not take exactly 10,000 hours, for some it may take less… for others, a bit more… but the point is to never quit striving for success / greatness! Never, ever, ever, EVER quit.

  9. Anna permalink

    With the examples you give of people jumping ahead of the game with less than 10,000 of work personally, in that field there was definitely more than 10,000 hours of work. Another consideration is that perhaps the rule isn’t best applied to knowledge, since anyone can pick up a book and get information, but to a skill. Making discoveries isn’t a skill. If you make a discovery that doesn’t mean you are a master of that field. This theory is more clearly in relation to your mastery of a skill, either physical or mental, that requires practice and repetition. Taking risks and creating new scientific theories is not so much a skill. Maybe think of learning a new language, sport, communication or problem solving. After 10,000 hours of work with the same task you learn what the driving forces are, what the common problems are and how to fix them, and complete it accurately, speedily and consistently. Then you can be considered an expert. Innovation is not something one can practice.

  10. jbjohnso permalink

    If not for a numerical figure, some people would simply feel aimless. Why invest 10,000 hours into something, repeating the same mistakes by the way, when you can learn and master something in one percent of that, 100 hours? A strict figure like 10,000 is rigid at best and arbitrary at its worst.

  11. shot permalink

    I think your argument against 10,000 hour rule is rather weak.

    You need to realize that people have different capabilities. NOT all people are made equal.

    A true genius may require much less time than an average Joe to acquire the same level of mastery in the area.

    I personally think 10,000 hours is based on someone with moderate innate talent. People with natural talent in the area could use much less time.

    Also worth noting that many areas in science(or other discipline) can overlap. While math and Physics, and geology and paleontology are different areas of discipline, there are many qualities that are common or interchangeable.

  12. Joeme permalink

    All your examples in your argument are based on theoretical discoveries by people with higher than average intelligence. How about the average person, or a real skill infact. How long does it take to become a “Master” Machinist, or Carpenter? trades are set on 4-5 year apprenticeships with hours ranging from 6-8000 hours, and even then after 5 years in your trade many of the people still perform terrible work and takes another 5 years in their discipline before they are regarded by their peer and others as “master” tradesman.

    How about sports? With people pushing the boundries of physical abilities every year it takes more and more practice to compete at the same level as the pro’s. Shit you have to basically be bread to do one thing to be competitive these days, and even then only the talented ones make it to the top. Do you think Wayne Gretzky became what he was in 2 or 3 years of playing the sport? Fuck no. He was bread to do one thing, he spent thousands and thousands of hours and years of his life playing hockey. He played other sports such as lacrosse to improve his ability in hockey, Ill bet by the age of 12 he had more than 10,000 hours of his life playing sports.

  13. Cool blog! I just finished reading Outliers a second time, just loved it. Not only does Gladwell point out how some of our greatest geniuses and wunderkids had amazing stories (and very lucky ones), they also point us in the direction of how we can change our own society to create even more brilliant minds. Highly recommended!

    To those not satisfied with the ‘how to’ aspect…have you picked an area in which (like the Beatles) you want to get your 10,000 hours? Is there a way you can redo your day to day schedule to speed up your 10,000 hr acquisition time (eg. 3 years instead of 10)?

  14. I agree with the 10.000 hr rule. I studied researched and practised federal law in combo with esoteric ancient law since 1995. I centered and focused my work mainly on research and certain practise. I calculate that I have in excess of 27.000 hours into the work thusfar to date. I passed an LSAT at 17 years old with out much study before hand. I hereby proclaim That I did not become totally confident or completely effective untill at least 10.000 hours into the work… I would advance the claim that the subject matter and previous level of intel are essential factors in any form of evaluating the rule

  15. Brandon permalink

    10,000 hours of practice would include, I imagine, working in that profession. The average day is 40 hours – the typical work year is 2080 hours. Within 5 years, a person would have roughly 10400 hours. Even if you take out vacation time you’re still dang close to the 10,000 hour mark. So you have those that were in the field 5-6 years? Yup, they reach the 10,000 hour mark.

    [MN: To amplify on points made in the post, very few people do 40 hours of deliberate practice extending their abilities at work each week. Most spend most of their time in meetings, doing drudge work, socializing, doing old tasks that don’t extend their abilities, and so on. This is true even of the Watson and Crick’s of the world, as Watson’s book “The Double Helix” makes clear.]

  16. nikita permalink

    Actually Watson and Crick didn’t discover the structure of DNA, they stole it from an inebriated scientist. Freshman year biology.

  17. The_catechizer permalink

    I believe the comments made were just. Someone must set the bar to a standard that anyone who intends to master a given skill may know when they can reasonable expect to achieve it. The 10,000 hour rule expounded upon by Malcolm Gladwell never seemed to be an etched-in-stone, hard and fast rule. It appears to me that he is informed enough, educated enough, experienced enough, intuitive enough to put for a psychological standard for the majority of people who what the proverbial bar.

    I recently read a story about a young German man named Marcel Pohl. He completed his bachelors and masters degree in 20 months. He completed 60 examinations in 20 months, and finished with a 2.3 GPA. The point is that there will be exceptions to any rule, yet a rule is encouraged to exist, hence E=MC2, or the Heisenberg theory, The Golden Rule, or simply the Rule of Law, but suggesting that a bound may have been overstepped, is near arbitrary, and borderline ridiculous.

    Great Post Michael
    Great Comments too. . .

  18. Ameen permalink

    The example of Watson & Crick is probably not a good one to support your view. Most of their conclusions have been based on previous work from Dr Rosalind Franklin. She passed away before the award of the Nobel Prize, and as you now, it cannot be awarded to deceased people, so only Watson and Crick got the reward. Watson & Crick “only” interpreted the results painstakingly obtained by Rosalind after a very huge amount of work. This doesn’t decrease their merit, but put it into perspective.

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