Skip to content

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

76 Comments
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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)?

  5. 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

  6. 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.]

  7. nikita permalink

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

  8. 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. . .

  9. 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.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers”, and the 10,000 hour rule « Quang Phuc’s Weblog
  2. Weekly Noggin Raisers #2 « N e u r o n a r r a t i v e
  3. The Definitive, Absolute, Best, 100% Accurate Rules for Being a Social Media Expert (Or Not). « I’m Awesome.
  4. How long until a music industry revolution? « Swindleeeee!!!!!
  5. How long until a music industry revolution? « Frank Hecker
  6. Late Night Chats and the Witching Hour « Resonance and Dissonance
  7. Coaching our school students « Penguin unearthed
  8. Depois eu leio » Software fora de empresas de tecnologia
  9. Epidemic of Low Confidence in American Males - Relationships -Dating, marriage, boyfriends, girlfriends, men, women, friends, attraction ... - Page 9 - City-Data Forum
  10. Trying to focus on too much at once? « Jason Michael Ford's Blog
  11. Hours - The Quantum Pontiff
  12. What Makes Remarkable People… Remarkable? « Future Philanthropreneur
  13. “Fearless” by Max Lucado | 21tiger [新代老虎] books. biz. asia.
  14. Yes, And « Bernadette Anat
  15. Connecteev » The 10000 hour rule
  16. “The Road to Success is Always Under Construction…” | isitalladream
  17. Is It Luck or Pure Determination? | fitchicla

Comments are closed.