The Ten Thousand Hour Rule

This is the post excerpt.


In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell tells about a 10,000-hour rule that he has come up with. The point of this rule is that if someone spends 10,000 hours practicing at an activity, then that person will become a master at the activity. He also claims that there are no slow learners, or any fast learners, instead he calls 10,000 hours “the magic number of greatness” (Gladwell 39-41). We all know that practice helps you to improve, but a “magic number?” Doesn’t this seem a bit too good to be true? It should sound unreal because we all know that life doesn’t work in magic numbers. Expertise and mastery can take different effort from different people in different subjects.practice-intro

People can be masters at something after short periods of time and people who have always enjoyed doing things can still be bad at it. We all inherit certain traits from our family and these traits help form us into the people that we become, yet Gladwell ignores this side of people when he explains his 10,000-hour rule in Outliers. Gladwell doesn’t really have any trustworthy evidence to back his claims about this rule, and there have since been other studies to test this idea, that have said it is incorrect. All of these things make the 10,000- hour rule seem like a poorly thought-out idea that Gladwell had while writing instead of a magic number to try and attain.


Have youfast-learner-high-jumper ever seen someone pick up on something rather quickly? Or have you been called a fast learner? Gladwell said that he “couldn’t find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did” (39).  This sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? Of course it does because some people are simply better without as much practice.

In an article for Skeptic’s Magazine, Michael Shermer tells a story about a high jumper who is one such case. Shermer, talking about the jumper, says “jutime-travelst two months after he first heard about high jumping. There he finished 4th in a field of world-class jumpers” (57). How could this be possible if ten thousand hours really is a “magic number of greatness?” Ten Thousand hours is a lot, and that’s probably why Gladwell thought it made so much sense. In fact, it’s a little over a year  of just practice time. Which means of course that you can’t fit ten thousand hours into two months, short of a flux capacitor. This means that the jumper in this story seems to be the “natural” who Gladwell doesn’t exist.

There are many stories of child prodigies – the kids who have remarkable talent at an extremely young age. Here is a five year old playing the piano in quite an impressive way. Ten thousand hours is simply too much for a five year old. It really is more than a fifth of his entire life. Children like these must be learning at an accelerated rate for their skill to be possible at such a young age.

At this point you should be piecing together that fast learners must exist in the world, regardless of how misleading Gladwell puts it in his book.

Slow Learners

Opposing what Gladwell has to say about becoming a master, people don’t learn at the same rate. We’ve already seen evidence of gifted learners and prodigies, who need far fewer than 10,000 hours to become skilled in a subject. However, there are those at the other end of tslow-learner-studenthe spectrum as well, who find themselves to be polar opposite to the prodigies. Many people are considered, by themselves or others, to be “slow learners.” Some people have disabilities that leave them unable to acquire knowledge at the speed of their peers, and other people are simply slower about retaining concepts and skills. The ten-thousand-hour rule gives no consideration to these groups although 10,000 hours for them would not have the same effect as someone who learns more in the same time.

Max Balcom wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune back in 1963 aslow-learner-billy-madisonbout “Slow Learners” in schools. Balcom wrote about a 15-year-old boy still in grade school because he couldn’t pass his classes “He had repeated classes and willingly joined in five different remedial programs”(33). This is a student actively putting in extra “practice” to be better, and can’t become average, certainly not a master. If he is practicing more than other students with “five different remedial programs” how is it that he isn’t showing better mastery than his peers? If practice is the only factor, then he should be great distances ahead of his peers due to his extra voluntary practice.

Gladwell said in Outliers “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder”(39). Which seems a stark contrast to what we’ve just read about a 15-year-old who works as hard as he can and can’t improve. His teacher said that “failures in elementary school were not his fault.slow-learner-hard-work According to his I. Q. scores, in fact, he was overachieving”(33). This boy worked so hard that in a personal scope he could be called an overachiever, yet he couldn’t reach an average level of achievement, despite Gladwell’s claims that success is due to only practice and hard work.

Nature Vs. Nurture

Nature vs. Nurture is a very common debate from early psychology, astages-of-child-development1-300x209nd is fairly well-known from basic psychology classes. It is the study of how genes and experience work together to make you who you are today. Everyone has traits that they get from their parents. Whether this is hair color, height, or blood pressure, these things can affect the things that you do and the person you become. Everyone also has life experiences that they have had during their life time. Learning and practicing affect the things you do and how you do them, so life experiences also shape the person you become.


Our pardivine-relationship-between-parents-and-childrenents pass on genetic information to us that determines many of the things about us. These things can affect what we do and how we do them. A person who is tall will probably have an easier time high-jumping than a short person, and a person with high blood pressure is more likely to have a stroke. The traits that we have decide things about us, over which we have no control, and these things can have powerful effects on who we are and what we can do.


Every person alive has different experiences in his or her lif23d869fe that affect the person that he or she becomes. These experiences affect how we react and think about things, how good we are at things, and what we have learned. A child attacked by a dog, may now fear dogs, athletes get better after practice, and a student learns math when taught by the math instructor. Experiences determine who you are by controlling how you react/feel, how skilled you are, or what you know.


Overall, the person that you become is determined by the relationship between your traits (nature) and ylawour experience (nurture).  As Susan Schneider said in an article for a behavioral analysis journal, “The crux of the matter is that genes and environment must work together to produce any aspect of any living thing” (Schneider). This is a peer reviewed journal article about the fact that nature and nurture must both work together, yet Gladwell did not mention any effect of genes and contributed it entirely to nurture.

Anders Ericsson

Anders Ericsson wrote a paper in 1993 called The Role of Deliberate Practice ericssonin the Acquisition of Expert Performance. This was the evidence that Gladwell quoted in his book to make his “10,000-hour rule.” However, Ericsson has since said that Gladwell was wrong to use the number as it was just an average of the students Ericsson was testing, not a magic number. Ericsson did the research, Gladwell wrote about it, Ericsson wrote a rebuttal about how Gladwell was wrong, and Gladwell has defended his statements.

Ericsson’s research contained an average amount of time of practice around 10,000 hours for his most talented students. This included some who were below 10,000 as well as some who were above. Gladwell then interpreted that data to mean that 10,000 hours was a “magic number of greatness” with no “naturals” or “grinds” (39-41).

Ericsson then published a rebuttal named The Dangers of Delegating Education to Journalists and said that6358480181490926891103014187_most-influential-journalists-today Gladwell was wrong. A BBC article quotes Ericsson as writing “The 10,000-hour rule was invented by Malcolm Gladwell… Gladwell cited our research on expert musicians as a stimulus for his provocative generalisation to a magical number” (BBC). This was Ericsson saying explicitly that Gladwell got carried away in creating his rule. Ericsson also goes on to say that his research was about meaningful or “deliberate” practice, yet Gladwell never mentioned it in Outliers.

Gladwell later said that the reason behind Ericsson disagreeing with him is because Gladwell believes more in natural talent, but as a reminder, Gladwell did not mention any effects of genes or innate ability on skill and cited that there were no fast or slow learners. This doesn’t seem to support that the difference is his belief in natural talent, but it is his defense.76d128c7c8_confusion-300x300

Future Studies

As you could imagine, this 10,000-hour rule is a very interesting idea to a lot of people. This means that there have been newer studies into the subject to see if the 10,000-hour rule holds true. Princeton university did a study by compiling data from other research and performing a meta-analysis to find patterns. There was a man by the name of Dan McLaughlin who quit his job to attempt to become a professional golfer, even though he had never played before, by reaching 10,000 hours. These bring a new light on the 10,000-hour rule.


In a story posted in 2014, Princeton University Ph.D. recipient and assistant professor in the Psychology Department of Case Western University, Brooke Macnamara, found patterns in studies that examined practice in skill and found that practice did not show a large difference in skill level (Princeton). Macnamara said “There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued” (Princeton). This study shows an interesting light for the 10,000-hour rule because when a highly-regarded institution such as Princeton does research into the concept they find that the claims are not supported.


As you can see, disciplines such as computer programming seemed to show less than a percentage point of difference from extended practice. This seems to directly counter Gladwell, as two of Gladwell’s first examples in his 10,000-hour rule chapter are Bill Joy and Bill Gates, who he claims were successful programmers because of their extended practice at programming.


A man by the name of Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job and try to become a professional golfer – a sport which he had never played before. He would attempt to put indan_mclaughlin 10,000 hours of golfing practice so he could become a master, and he had quite a following
in this endeavor (TheDanPlan). The plan was to achieve a handicap index that was low enough to enter the PGA tour, which would be a 2.0, from his starting index of 8.7 (TheDanPlan). McLaughlin made progress in his practice, but began seeing diminishing results, and eventually damaged his back from the excessive effort. This makes the goal of 10,000 hours seem unrealistic, as his countdown ended in April of 2015 with another 4,000 hours left even though he had professionals to help him along the way (TheDanPlan).

70ceb0a5800370c3a4bf84d96b5a4315These attempts at testing the 10,000-hour rule seem to only dispute Gladwell’s claims, as further evidence seems to show that practice either isn’t enough, or that 10,000 hours is an unrealistic goal.

Works Cited

Balcom, Max. “Slow Learners: Full Speed Ahead.” Chicago Tribune, vol.115, no. 258, Sunday, September 15, 1963, pp. 33-35, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1963/09/15/page/165/article/slow-learners-full-speed-ahead

Carter, Ben. “Can 10,000 Hours of Practice Make You an Expert?” BBC News. N.p., 28 Feb. 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26384712

Communications, By Office of. “Becoming an Expert Takes More than Practice.” Princeton University. Trustees of Princeton University, 03 July 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2016. https://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S40/43/14C80/index.xml?section=topstories

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print

McLaughlin, Dan. “Statistics.” The Dan Plan. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016. http://thedanplan.com/statistics-2/

Schneider, Susan M. “The Tangled Tale Of Genes And Environment: Moore’s The Dependent Gene: The Fallacy Of ‘Nature Vs. Nurture’.” The Behavior Analyst 30.1 (2007): 91-105. PsycINFO. Web. 4 Dec. 2016. https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.proxy.kennesaw.edu/pmc/articles/PMC2223161/

Shermer, Michael. “The 10,000-Hour Rule Debunked: The Sports Gene: Inside The Science Of Extraordinary Athletic Performance By David Epstein.” Skeptic (Altadena, CA) 4 (2013): 57. General OneFile. Web. 4 Dec. 2016. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.kennesaw.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=a2d1dc2e-4b58-4e40-9723-4c05cef00e54%40sessionmgr104&vid=3&hid=120

The child Pianist. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3oNVmSaMsE