Why You Should Ignore the 10,000 Hour Rule
There’s one rule that almost anyone references when it comes to learning something or becoming great at one particular skill. We all call it the 10,000 hour rule, which was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers .
While I like Gladwell’s writing, it’s important for people to understand the problems with his 10,000 hour rule. It sends a great message that practice is important, and does include “deliberate” practice. However, it ignores a lot of factors and sets a standard that lots and lots of practice are all one ever needs to become great at something.
The reason deconstructing this 10,000 hour rule is important is because it sets people’s eyes on a metric that doesn’t mean anything. Focusing on the number of hours you have practiced isn’t what is going to make you great.
On top of that, 10,000 hours is an intimidating number. It sets a massive mountain in front of you that you need to climb. If you break it down, it doesn’t become any less intimidating:
10,000 hours is 416.6 days of non-stop training.
In more realistic terms, it’s 2 hours, everyday for 13.7 years or 3 hours a day for 9.13 years. That’s a lot of time.
In general, rules are fine. But they all deserve to be scrutinized. If we blindly follow rules, we greatly ignore any possibility of realizing that this rule maybe not true and leading us down a path that isn’t ideal or effective.
Rules like the 10,000 hour rule that tell you that you have to do X in order to do Y can often lead to inaction and lack of innovation. Rules like this are the kind that Elon Musk ignores when using what he calls reasoning from first principals.
Instead of following all the dogma and rules of his industries like automotive and space travel, he looks at what results he needs. He doesn’t ask how was this done in the past or how has everyone else accomplished this. He looks at what he needs to get done, then starts working from there, ignoring the past rules.
It doesn’t mean he ends up not following all of the old rules, but it means that he may skip a few of them, which lead to better results.
That’s what evaluating the 10,000 hour rule can do for us. If you go to learn something new, and someone tells you to “put in your 10,000 hours,” that can be intimidating and put your focus on something that doesn’t matter at all.
Where the 10,000 Hour Rule Falls Short
To understand why this rule shouldn’t be a rule, we have to look at the study Gladwell used to come up with this “rule”, and why the original researcher criticizes Gladwell’s work.
The original study, done by Anders Ericsson, is based on the practice hours ten world-famous musicians. This is a very small sample and is pre-screened. What this ten person study leaves out is what about anyone who has practiced around 10,000 hours and is not a world-famous musicians?
That’s like looking at the average height of an NBA player and saying, if you grow to be 6’, you become a professional basketball player. What about 6’ people who are not in the NBA, even as much as they’d like to be?
Taking a small sample size of pre-screened people and analyzing them gives interesting leads into other things to study, but to construct a rule about it that becomes the corners stone of learning anything is a bit silly.
Not only does a pre-screened, tiny sample-size study not add up, but it’s also taking an average and making a rule. Averages and rules aren’t equals. This is a mistake we make very often when looking at scientific studies.
For example, there has been a follow-up study to this that looked at the average amount of hours it took for chess players to reach international status. The average hours came out to be 11,053 which makes it seem like the 10,000 hour rule is right about on point, doesn’t it?
Well, once again, that’s pre-screened study. But more importantly, highlighting how averages work, on the low end of hours it took a chess player to reach master status was 3,000 hours. On the high end, it was 25,000 hours.
Someone should tell that 3,000 hour guy that he didn’t follow the rules.
In the book, The Sports Gene, David Epstein is looking at high jumpers. One guy who had put in 20,000 hours had the same heigh jump as someone who put in 0 hours at being a high jumper.
Sure, the 10,000 hour rule is just a good rule to show that practice is important, but it ignores the majority of what goes into becoming world-class at something.
Why are some people achieving world-class status at an extremely faster rate than others?
Let’s Start With Genetics
In The Sports Gene, Epstein dives into the genetics of skill acquisition. Why are some people naturally gifted towards other things? This is a classic conversation of nature versus nurture.
Epstein doesn’t attribute success to only nature, even though his book is about the genetics of successful athletes. He’s not blind to the fact that deliberate practice makes people much better at something than if they didn’t practice.
But what he does point out, that gets ignored by the 10,000 hour rule, is that 1 hour of training isn’t the same for one person as it is for another.
If I were to train 10,000 hours to be a sprinter and Usain Bolt practiced 5,000 hours to be a sprinter, he would still beat me.
Why? Because my 5’4” frame doesn’t help me out as much as Usain’s 6’4” build.
It’s not just height, but many other factors. One fascinating example is Kenyan long distance runners.
The funny thing is, it’s not all Kenyan’s that are great runners. It’s actually a subset of people from the Kalenjin Tribe. Why is the Kalenjin Tribe full of extremely great runners while the rest of Kenya isn’t? Or other countries in Africa where people run to school?
Because the Kalenjin are built to be long distant runners. They have extremely narrow builds, with very narrow pelvic girdle and long, thin limbs. They have a ton of surface area for the volume of their body, which allows them to unload more heat through the surface of their skin.
Also, with their skinny legs, they have less weight far away from their center of gravity, which greatly increase their running economy. Ten pounds right at your center of gravity doesn’t lower your running economy as much as five pounds added to each of your feet.
10,000 hours of practice for a Kalenjin tribesman will get them farther in the world of long distance running than 10,000 hours for me or even another Kenyan, not from that tribe.
But this doesn’t mean that it’s all genetics. There are plenty of shortcuts outside of being genetically gifted that can help people achieve greatness in less than 10,000 hours.
There’s Fast Ways and Slow Ways
When it comes to learning something new, there are multiple ways to going about it, obviously. Some ways may cause you to take 10,000 hours to become great, or others could help you accomplish it in a lot less time.
There’re ways to improve not only the speed at which you learn but your ability to stick with a practice schedule.
For example, a few ways to help you stick with learning something new are to give yourself incentives. If you put money on the line, say with a friend or via a program like StickK.com , then you are way more likely to stick with doing your practice. If you say you’ll give a friend $50 every day you don’t practice guitar, you are much more likely to practice guitar.
Another way to hack your motivation is to start with small wins. You don’t need to go out and run a half-marathon tomorrow if you’re training for a marathon. Just start slow. Each time you accomplish something towards your goal, then you will get a release of dopamine, which will improve your motivation to achieve it.
Beyond motivation, there are major factors to look at when developing your methodology when attempting to become great at something.
If you’re a novice, you have a pretty long ways to go.
However, you could increase the speed at which you put weight on the bar if you focus more energy on the bottle neck of the lift, which is lifting from the ground to your knees.
That’s it. And to improve even quicker, you can lift three days a week, following a routine like this:
3 reps of 95% of your 1 Rep Max
Rest 5 minutes
5 reps of 85% of your 1 Rep Max
That’s it for deadlift. And it works. I used this to get my deadlift up to 375 lbs last year at a weight of 150 lbs. Not world-class, but seeing as how I started at 215, and worked up to 375 within 2 months by using this protocol and fixing some other underlying issues, it shows you can easily find shortcuts.
That simple routine combined with only lifting to your knees accomplishes two things that a routine typically doesn’t.
First, it focuses all your energy on the bottleneck of your deadlift. Say you can rack pull (the upper part of a deadlift) 350 lbs, but can only deadlift 275lbs.
That means it’s lifting the bar to your knees that is causing that gap. Focus more energy on the bottleneck to see a greater improvement in the entire system rather than evenly distributing resources across the entire system.
Secondly, the small amount of work, with a total of 8 reps per workout allows you to experience strength gains without causing too much hypertrophy. This means you are causing less muscle damage per workout, so you can workout more often.
Most lifting routines that have you doing 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps cause way more muscle damage. If you’re deadlifting heavy at that amount of work, you will only be able to deadlift twice a week.
Lifting once more a week over three months is about 12 more times to lift. 12 more times you can add just 5 lbs, which over the 12 sessions would be 60 lbs. That’s 12 extra sessions focused on the bottleneck of your deadlift, which as I mentioned above, provides a higher ROI than distributing resources across the whole deadlift.
Looking at 10,000 hours doesn’t take that into consideration whatsoever.
Another example is learning a language. A skill most of us pretended to attempt in high school. Well, there’s a method that will get you successful much quicker than the way we were taught in high school.
The number one goal when it comes to learning a language should be to start speaking as soon as possible. This does take a certain mindset that it’s ok to sound stupid and get laughed at a lot. And I mean a lot. I could never say “credit” right in Portuguese when living in Brazil. I got laughed at daily by the same clerks at the market who would have me repeat it over and over).
If you’re just starting to learn a language, let’s say Spanish, then you feel like you have this massive amount of work to do before you can start to speak. However, there’s a very quick way to start talking.
Did you know you don’t have to conjugate verbs after helping verbs?
What this means that if you learn just these verbs and their conjugations, you can start to learn verbs in their non-conjugated form and use them right away?
Yes, this won’t sound extremely natural, but you can start talking almost immediately. You could start talking by the end of the week if you hit these on flash cards for the week.
Then on top of that, did you know that 1,200 words make up 80% of the spoken English language? The top 300 most used words in English make up 65% of all written words. Why do we learn words like alligator in school in Spanish when there’s obviously more important words to be learning.
Thus, if you learn the helping verbs, plus a solid amount of those words that make up so much of the speaking language, you can start to talk about more and more topics. And that’s the goal. That’s typically what most of us struggle with is speaking and listening to a new language.
Instead of waiting a year until you are closer to “perfection”, start roughly now and then make adjustments. Hit those with flashcards, then get a very affordable Spanish tutor off of italki.com for like $8 an hour to talk with three days a week ($96 a month for 12 hours of private tutoring):
Graph from 4 Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss
Also, if you do flashcards, you might as well follow the Von Restorff protocol. It increases recall of vocab up to 85% (in typical flashcard sessions, your around 60%):
Just by following a different protocol, you can cut your time down to conversational fluency by years. Maybe even down to 3 months.
Changing your methodology to improve motivation and learning up front almost makes the 10,000 hour rule completely moot, but I’m also just getting started.
If you’re beginning to learn something new, why not use your prior strengths to start out on a good foot. Check out this Ven Diagram from The 4 Hour Chef:
Everyone has skills from past experiences. How can you leverage them into learning new things? Instead of thinking of starting at the bottom of a big ladder, you could just be moving laterally from one ladder to another.
You’re never really starting at the bottom of a new ladder. Evaluating where to start and how to leverage your past skills helps you realize how to climb faster at the start. This will help you develop an even better methodology to learn your new skills.
Some smaller things that help are watching videos of people doing what you want to do. This increasing learning by X%, and exactly what I did when learning how to knuckle a soccer ball my junior year of college. If you don’t know what it means to knuckle a ball, watch this video:
I got asked by my coach how I improved my shooting so quickly. Well, I watched a video of Cristiano Ronaldo shooting. Multiple times. In slow motion. Then I would go shoot. I’d start slow. Very slow, focusing on technique over speed. Then slowly got faster.
It’s simple, but so many people don’t evaluate their methodology of meticulously studying videos of people accomplishing what they want to be doing.
Another factor people don’t consider is something as simple as sleep. Sleep is extremely important for moving short term memories to long term ones.
Let’s say we have two people are both trying to become world-class pianists, and they start at the same level and have the same practice schedule. However, one gets eight hours of great sleep, and the other has a restless five hours of sleep. Which one will be transferring the short term memories of their daily lessons better over into long term?
One may end up with 15,000 hours to greatness while the other gets it in less time.
That’s not all.
Upgrading Your Hardware
If what you learn and how you learn are the software, then the hardware is your brain. Your brain will determine a lot of how fast or slow you learn. Well, what if you improved your hardware and how it functions?
A simple way is to improve your diet. In the book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle, dives deep into how we learn. Covering a lot of topics, but one that is important is the physiology of what happens when we learn something. It can be anything, from math, checkers, baseball, or horseback riding.
What happens when you perform a skill is that your brain fires off neurons in a particular order. If you are swinging a tennis racket, there’s a correct way to fire off this sequence of neurons and an incorrect way. The proper way hits the ball where you want it to go. The wrong way hits it into the net.
Well, each time you fire a sequence, your brain wraps these neural pathways with myelin. A neural pathway starts like a narrow one lane road, then wrapping myelin is like adding lanes to that road.
On a narrow one lane road, you have to drive very slow if you want to stay on it. If you go to quickly, you go off the road and aren’t driving correctly (i.e. hitting the ball incorrectly).
However, the more times you drive that narrow one lane road correctly, your brain says “Good Job. Let’s add another lane”, and wraps that neural pathway with myelin.
The more you drive the road correctly, the more lanes get added until you have a ten lane freeway and can drive that road correctly without even thinking about it.
Well myelin, just like anything else in your body doesn’t come out of nowhere. Your body needs resources to build these extra lanes. If you are eating a poor diet, then your limiting your body’s resources to wrap myelin around neural pathways, aka learning.
Myelin needs Choline, Omega-3’s, and B-12 vitamins in order to be created, so a diet which provides those will make sure your body has enough resources to build more and more lanes on your freeway.
Other ways you can upgrade your hardware are meditation, brain training, taking nootropics, and avoiding toxic stuff like alcohol (which most of us know really doesn’t help memory).
In the book Smartcuts, where Shane Snow looks at people who have quickly become great in their fields, there’s basically a list of ways to skip over the usual path people assume you need to take to be great, which means not putting in 10,000 hours. Here’s a quick overview.
If you have a mentor, you greatly increase your ability to succeed.
If you study a broad range of fields, you have more information to use to come up with out of the box ways to accomplish your goals and overcome barriers.
If you have a growth mindset, where you attribute failures to your process and not your innate ability, you are able to fix your process quicker to get better results.
If you are constantly upgrading the platform on which you are working on, you achieve results much faster. An example to explain this is if you put in 10,000 hours of playing basketball, but only play against the mediocre guys at your local gym, then you will most likely plateau. However, if you put in 10,000 hours of playing basketball, where you are constantly playing against better and better players, always being in games where you aren’t the best player on the court, you’ll get much better than the person who never leaves his local gym.
A real life example of upgrading your platform is by DHH, who became the quickest rise to the to the top league in championship car racing. How he accomplished this was by moving up leagues whenever he hit the minimum to do so.
While the standard was to win and dominate the current league you were in before moving up, there was nowhere in the rules that said you had to wait to do that before your could move up. So DHH hit the minimum requirements, then moved up. Racing against more skilled people forced him to get better faster. The platform in which you perform in amplifies your effort and teaches you skills in the process.
Another “smartcut” from the book is the Sinatra Principle. This basically means moving to the hotbed of where people are doing what you want to be doing and getting into the mix. This relates to the Talent Code, since Coyle went to hotbeds to study how people learn.
He went to Russia to study women’s tennis. He went to South Korea to study golf, he went to Brazil to study soccer. All places that put out an unusual amount of talent in a short period of time.
There are certain places where talent accumulates. If you want to be great, get into the mix around other people accomplishing it. This may not be possible for everyone, but if greatness is truly what you want, then this is a massive way to improve the time it takes for you to become world-class.
The last way I wanted to cover on how the 10,000 hour rule falls short and puts the focus on learning in the wrong spot is what is known as flow states.
You probably know what a flow state is, even if you don’t know the word. It’s the technical term for getting in the zone. When you are doing something where you lose track of time and don’t even really have to think to do things. Things just happen for you naturally.
This is actually becoming known as a certain state of mind, and has started to become easier to study over the last couple decades thanks to neuroscience. Basically, your brain releases a crazy cocktail of chemicals that gives you almost superhuman abilities.
In the book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler studies extreme athletes in order to dissect how they have changed the sport so much in such a short time. He breaks down a bunch of triggers that lead to flow states.
These flow states, that give superhuman abilities, can be systematically triggered if you are putting yourself in the right situation, and it doesn’t have to be extreme sports. It can be lifting, writing, art, or anything that takes creativity to have breakthroughs.
An excellent book to read along side Kotler’s is the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. In this book, Waitzkin goes deep into learning, covering a lot on flow. Waitzkin was able to come up with his own trigger for flow, which he used to get into flow for practicing the martial art of Tai Chi Push Hands (he’s also a black belt in BJJ and an International Master of chess).
He would record videos of himself during practice. This way when he would get into flow, he could then go home and dissect what he was able to accomplish while in it. Then he would systematically work towards doing naturally what initially took a flow state to pull off.
Is this effective? Well in just 6 years of training for Tai Chi Push Hands, Waitzkin won the world championship in it. This was before his black belt in BJJ, so this was his first time ever training in martial arts.
How’s that for the 10,000 hour rule?
While the 10,000 hour rule does pass on a good lesson that practice is needed to become great, it shouldn’t be a rule. Rules force people into a box that they may not need to be in.
Rules put blinders on you. Some rules are rules for reasons and have to be followed, but this isn’t one of them. With any rule, it deserves to be questioned and asked, is this really true? Is this really something that I need to follow? Who created this rule and does it still hold true?
“If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have got anywhere.” – Marilyn Monroe