We live the life of the Outlier and while that is a difficult existence in all realities, there is also a certain satiety in being able to view the mainstream from afar and learn from their mistakes in mass thinking.  SuperGenius author Malcolm Gladwell argues in his “Outlier” book that the rule for finding the greatest success in life costs you 10,000 hours of practice and study.


10,000 hours in everyday terms generally means, in Gladwell’s book, three hours of practice and study a day in childhood for a decade.

Musicians who start learning their craft at age ten will be proficiently successful by the age of 20 — but, the catch, Gladwell presciently argues — is that few of those ten-year-olds ever make it to the ten thousand hour mark and that’s why there are not many musical prodigies or successes because, in the end, it isn’t about genetics or talent or ability or luck.  It’s all about dedication and practice and 10 years of daily devotion.

Is that 10,000 hour mark arbitrary or mandatory?

Can we cheat that number down for late-blooming kids by having them practice for, say, six hours a day for five years to help them hit that golden then thousand number? 

Or is the achievement of success more than just acquiring hours and the stretch of time necessarily helps form the context of mastery and understanding?

I figure I probably have well over 90,000 hours of writing mastery since my teen years — but that number was achieved by going well beyond the three-hours-a-day rule Gladwell argues. 

Is there any advanced proficiency beyond the 10,000 hour mark?  Or it is everything past 10,001 just gravy on the bangers and beans?

Can we play catch up on that 10,000 hour rule as an adult?  If I start my musical understanding now, can I reach proper proficiency in two years with 10 hours of daily grindstoning of fingers against a fretboard?  Or am I doomed to a decade of waiting for proper proficiency to hit me?

Is it possible to cheat the rule and break into premature mastery against time?

22 Comments

  1. David,
    I am not sure if I fully agree with the theory of 100% dedication.
    Unless you have the basic foudation within you — a 22 hrs practice a day can’t really help.
    But yes, with the basic sense and with the rigorous practice I believe you can cheat the 10,000 hour rule.

  2. There are so many young prodigies, Katha, who were forced into their ultimate field of expertise by their parents even though they did not want or even like the talent that developed. It didn’t seem that love or like or interest mattered — it was only the “pressing” of the 10,000 hours into the flesh daily is what made the difference — even if the mind was adrift and disinterested.
    Last Sunday on “60 Minutes,” tennis player Andre Agassi confessed his drug addiction and the fact that he hated tennis and always had hated tennis. His father forced him into becoming a tennis prodigy. The interviewer was surprised by that remark and said that without tennis Andre wouldn’t have such nice things and he never would’ve met his wife Steffi Graff. Andre just sort of sat there and stared back at him like an inmate silently confronts his gaoler.

  3. Hi David,
    If Andre Agassi was not in tennis he would have been successful in any other kind of sports, because it is there in him – his father represented his country in Olympics in boxing.
    Agassi didn’t like Tennis – that’s a different ballgame altogether.

  4. Hi David,
    I think the world wouldn’t have got an Andre Agassi if his parents (father, to be precise) didn’t pressurize him.
    In order to create an Agassi they have sacrificied his own desire, I am not sure whether he was given enough time to figure out what did he want…
    Someone has to sacrifice something in the long run…either the kid or the parents…

  5. I think you’re right, Katha, that the parent’s will was pressed into young Andre. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t because today, Agassi is a recovering meth addict and he seems lost and not his own man and uncomfortable in his own skin.

  6. Oh, I think his parents are ecstatic, Katha. They did their job. They created a superstar and gave their child a fine career. Happiness and contentment obviously have less value in the Agassi home than a strict work ethic that places devotion to an ideal above the self.

  7. Really? You think so? They are ecstatic even after seeing Agassi suffering? Does parenting mean bulldozing your kid’s wish and give him/ her a career where after retirement he confesses of drug addiction and resentment? I don’t think I understand the formula…

  8. Cruelty doesn’t demand a blood relation:

    SI and The Times are among four publications that paid for the rights to print parts of “Open: An Autobiography.” Among the material excerpted, Agassi calls his father “violent by nature” and recalls being in the car when his father pointed a handgun at another driver. He writes about making money by hustling people on tennis courts and remembers when, at 9 years old, he beat former NFL great Jim Brown in a match to win a $500 bet for his father.
    Agassi poignantly recalls a telephone conversation with his father after winning Grand Slam title No. 1 at Wimbledon in 1992. Dad’s initial reaction? “You had no business losing that fourth set,” Agassi writes.

    http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/tennis/news/story?id=4603632
    And this:

    Call it a confessional fairy tale. There’s a dragon, Agassi’s term for the oversize ball machine his father, Mike, forces the boy to hit thousands of balls against with soul-deadening regularity. There’s a dungeon – the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, a “glorified prison camp” Agassi is dispatched to at 13 and escapes thanks to a deceitful yet adroit experience involving a stuffed panda bear. There’s horror. Agassi’s portrait of Mike rivals the Joan Crawford of “Mommie Dearest” as he describes his father trying to ply him with speed, smashing trophies and picking a fight with a car salesman over a $50 surcharge.
    No wonder Agassi declined to invite his father to his wedding to Steffi Graf – she being the princess, an elegant, fellow tennis-hating damsel graced not just with long legs but also programmed to compete vigorously in ways Agassi found elusive.
    “I wish I possessed some of my father’s rage,” writes Agassi. “I wish I could tap into it during tough matches. I wonder what I could do in tennis if I could access that rage and aim it across the net. Instead, whatever rage I have, I turn on myself.”

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/11/15/RV761ABKBL.DTL

  9. When monsters raise children — nobody wins — there is an internal devastation in the child that can never be repaired or truly understood. We’ve only heard the surface infractions from Andre. I’m certain there are much deeper wounds he suffered at the monster’s hand that we may never know.

  10. I read that Dan Brown writes for six hours a day and has for years but many find his writing to be dull and lifeless. I wonder if there are exceptions to this rule or if the expression “practice makes consistent” bears well here. That is, that if you practice playing a song badly over and over again, you will not become perfect at playing the song but consistent at playing it badly. Hmm.

    1. That many find Dan Brown’s writing dull abnd lifeless is less an issue than the importance and significance of the writing itself; the story he chose to tell and the timing of it. I think the ten thousand hour rule applies here. Being immersed in his craft six hours a day for years not only sharpens the innate skill but also sharpens awareness. As an editor in a very small house specializing in chap books, I found most young writers not prepared at all for publication and after dialoguing with them a bit, found they had “discovered” their writing talent maybe a year before submitting their work. When I was a Junior in High School I was hired by a small town newspaper to write sports. I was paid well and had the perks of newspaper credentials to cover sports in Seattle. I thought myself a prodigy, that is until years later I went back to my tear sheets and groaned at every lousey word I wrote. Many years, many many hours of writing and six books later, I am beginning to see some light. I might become a writer some day.

  11. That is an interesting take, Gordon. When you learn something new — like, say, the guitar — you must practice slowly at first to make certain you are hitting all the notes just right. If you try to start fast you will end up sloppy and you will never know what it takes to correctly lock something down in its bare essence.

  12. I can offer a few points from personal experience that seem to confirm the 10,000 hour rule.
    I started playing music (clarinet) as an adult, aged 32, having never played as a child. For the last 18 years, I’ve practiced on average about 2 hours a day. I hadn’t heard of the rule, but in retrospect, I can see that around the point that I’d logged 10,000 hours my playing reached a “professional” level of proficiency. Part of the rule requires QUALITY practice, and that’s difficult to do for more than 2 to 3 hours per day. Logging 6 hours of non-focused work won’t do the trick.
    When I first picked up my horn, I greatly feared that I’d never get far having not started as a child. My experience should give hope to anyone who wants to master new a skill later in life.
    ~John Malmstrom