Why I think the 10,000 hour idea is bogus

Posted by John Brown on January 24th, 2014

Here’s the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated: put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (as opposed to mindless practice) into the area of your choice, and you will succeed. 10,000 hours is more important than anything else. 

10,000 hours.

The idea that deliberate practice makes perfect and leads to success seems to make a lot of sense.

Except I don’t think the data holds up.

First, there’s a huge survivorship bias in the 10,000 hour idea.

Both Gladwell and Colvin based their stuff on Anders Ericsson’s research. I contacted Mr. Ericsson and asked him if there were any studies that weren’t correlational. Any that took similar groups of schlubs and showed that deliberate practice is what took them to elite levels of performance.

He said no there weren’t, but graciously sent me some files to help. Here’s the money quote in those files:

“The main focus of deliberate practice was to explain individual differences among those individuals who had had access to all necessary training and practice opportunities. I proposed those factors which could explain the performance differences within groups of expert musicians who had accumulated over ten years of instruction and mentoring by skilled teachers.”

These were not studies designed to look at those who became elite and those that didn’t and figure out what made the difference.

And there are huge issues using what he identified to make claims about what leads to expertise.

Big issue one: he has no idea what kind of practice any of these folks had before he met with them. It’s all self-reported. There were no controls to verify the amounts of “deliberate” practice the musicians had in the long years up to the time he studied them.

Big issue two (and just as important): he’s looking at experts. It’s all after-the-fact.

He took a bunch of successful people and looked at their current work habits and speculated about their reports of earlier practice. Hum, they’ve put in a lot of hours. And these guys doing better, seem to be doing a specific type of practice. But he did NOT look at a cohort of people who all started out at the same time, track their progress, and then identify factors that made the difference between those who became elite, those who became so-so, and those who ended up in the mud pit.

But somehow his stuff got twisted into the idea that if you’re starting out and just put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you’ll be successful just like those big guys! 

Ericsson did not study, and Gladwell and Colvin do not address the factor early success plays. Especially in writing and other tournament-style endeavors where rejection plays a huge role.

So many people quit because the effort is not worth the reward. What you have left then are a bunch of people who persevered, but was it the hours they put in that led them to the top? Or did they have a lot of hours because they hung in there?

And did they hang in because they had early success?

And did they have early success because of luck or some natural aptitude or advantage like birthday that seems to factor so heavily in Canadian hockey (I think Gladwell talked about that in the same book–right birth date means you’re older compared to the other kids and therefore seem to have “talent” when it’s just a few months more physical development, which makes a big difference when you’re young) or some parent who had expertise and gave them a leg up against the other kids in their cohort?

You see the effect of success in reading. My wife works as a 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher. The studies have shown that kids, in general, need to have about 94% comprehension rate to stick with reading. Below that they start to feel failure, get frustrated, and quit. In most cases, reading a super hard book will decrease motivation. Which then leads to less practice. And less skill. They’ve found that kids will work down around an 89% comprehension rate, a struggling range, if they have support. Below that the failure rate leads them to self select out of reading.

Where in all these studies was self-selection included? Nowhere. Motivation. Early success. Quitting. Disregarding those is a huge oversight.

And all of this is compounded, especially for artists buying into the 10,000 hour idea, that even if you do get some skillz, that’s a completely separate thing from being noticed.

Duncan Watts did a fascinating study about cumulative advantage reported in the NY Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html?_r=0

Basically he took a bunch of songs with varying quality and wanted to see how social influence (download counts) affected which songs rose to the top. He put the same set of songs in 8 discrete and separate online environments to see which songs would be most popular. His finding:

“In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable. . .

. . . When we added up downloads across all eight social-influence worlds, “good” songs had higher market share, on average, than “bad” ones. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others.”

So even if your stuff is good, that does not mean it will be popular.

And when you meet failure after failure after failure . . .

You’ve got to practice well to get better, to offer more awesome gifts. But you’re not going to practice without the motivation. Motivation is the KEY to learning. And early success is a key part to motivation.

Another piece of data that seems to belie the 10,000 hour claim is that when you do some simple math and look at surveys of writers breaking in, 10,000 hours starts to look very odd indeed.

Let’s say you’re a poopy-slow writer and can only get 250 words in per hour. In 10,000 hours will you have written 2.5 million words or about twenty-five 100k novels.

25 novels?

Hey, you say, you can’t be typing the whole time.

Okay, what if you spend about half that 10,000 hours writing and the other editing and doing pre-draft work? That’s still 12.5 finished novels.

That sounds like Brandon Sanderson. Except it’s not. Remember, he sold number 5 or 6.

Furthermore, the problem is that from all the surveys I’ve seen, writers who break into the old traditional publishing system aren’t averaging 12.5 novels. They aren’t averaging 5 or 6. They’re averaging 3-4, with a lot selling their first or second.

Hello, Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling. And a lot of indie authors.

Jim Hines reports from a survey of authors he conducted:

“I also asked how many books people had written before they sold one to a major publisher. The average was between three and four. Median was two. I was surprised, however, to see that the mode was zero. 58 authors sold the first novel they wrote.” More at: http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/novel-survey-results-part-ii/

10,000 hours? A million words?

I don’t think so.

Gladwell scoffs at this 10,000-hours-will-make-you-a-success reading of his original writings on the matter: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2013/08/psychology-ten-thousand-hour-rule-complexity.html.

But this is precisely the message so many have taken from the studies. Just put in the time and you’ll become great because the practice is more important than any natural aptitude . . . or early success.

I don’t think it is.

John, what in the Sam Hill are you doing? Trying to depress everyone and tell them they can’t succeed?

No.

What I’m saying is that we must practice and improve our craft. That’s a given. But we cannot expect that alone to make us successful. Especially not as artists. We can’t expect that 10,000 alone will make our work super popular.

Working hard WILL increase the probability of success (what’s that saying?–the harder I work, the luckier I get).  But as writers we’ve got to realize that there’s no guarantee of popularity. Or even expertise.

So what are we left with?

Nothing, and maybe everything. Because there is passion. There is sharing. And if you can tap into that and rejoice in the sharing that does occur, it might well be the best reward. Bricks of gold in the basement and your name on everyone’s lips must be awesome. But a memory of walking a number of afternoons with a daughter in the hills and telling (sharing) a fine tale to that audience of one might just be worth more than all the gold bricks in China.

(Yes China, not Fort Knox. You didn’t hear?–we had to ship everything over before we could get another loan.)

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2 Responses to “Why I think the 10,000 hour idea is bogus”

  1. LL Muir Says:

    Hey.
    I concur. I also think that there are lovely freaks out there who don’t need 10k hours to be incredible. Of course, I’m not one of them, but believing in their existence gives me hope.

    I’m about to hit that 10k hour mark myself and I don’t sense any marching bands organizing in my honor. Too bad Gladwell’s theory is about as true as the time travel romances I write!

  2. John Brown Says:

    I don’t know. You are succeeding very well, far above average, in both your number of readers and income, and that started well before any 10,000 hours. I also suspect a big part of your current motivation in your writing stems from that early success. Nothing motivates like success. Well, fear of being eaten by a bear might. Still, there’s nothing like having some success to motivate work.

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