The 10,000-hour Red Herring

Guitar dude in a chair in his room says, “Done! I’ve clocked 10,000 hours! I’m a genius. Now to wait for the call from the A & R guy with the 360-degree deal. (nothing happens).  By Donald Fraser at

You’ve all heard it by now: all the talk and focus on the 10,000 hour “rule,” from people like Malcolm Gladwell, and the lead researcher who originally published the finding, Anders Ericsson, whose theories on deliberate practice are not without opposition in the academic world. If you haven’t heard of this finding by researchers Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, it goes like this: it takes 10,000 hours of what they call deliberate practice to reach expert-level performance, whether it’s in sports, music, chess, comedy, or x-ray diagnostics. But the 10,000-hour rule is a red herring for several reasons.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

1. It’s not the hours you practice, it’s the practice in your hours. If you’re practicing in the wrong way, or practicing the wrong things, there is little benefit. Quality of practice matters. Playing one note for 10,000 hours will not make you an expert.

2. This “rule” pertains to elite-level performers. You DO NOT need 10,000 hours to be a good player and enjoy yourself, and entertain others. Consider a recent book from Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast. (his video is below, too).

3.  Trying to wrap your mind around putting in 10,000 hours can be daunting. Forget about it. Concern yourself with the next practice session, not the ones years from now. Expert-level performers weren’t trying to accumulate 10,000 hours, they were doing what they love to do.

4. Context matters, as Gladwell pointed out in OutliersWhere you are and who you’re with (and when you are) all matter. Cultivate relationships with like-minded people to boost your musical ability and knowledge.

5. The 10,000 hour “rule” is for what Ericsson called deliberate practice. All experts engage in many other activities and behaviors that also contribute to their expertise. For musicians, it can be performing, talking about music and musicians, playing informally, reading about music, studying music theory, going to performances, listening to music, watching YouTube videos and many, many other activities. It all contributes. Greatness isn’t about the hours, it’s a lifestyle.

6. The last issue (there are others, so please share if you have some) has to do with something tuba player Rex Martin told me. It was told to him by legendary Chicago Symphony trumpeter Bud Herseth who passed away recently. Herseth gave lots of good advice. Bud told Rex, “You have to be careful about practice, or you start practicing practice. You need to practice performance.”

Classical musicians and anybody learning in school often get caught up in this practice trap, the trap that the 10,000 hour rule reinforces: we practice too much and perform too little. Performance is key, and it’s an experience that will sharpen your skills very quickly. Performance will also give you excellent feedback about where you most need improvement. Practice as though you’re performing, and perform a lot as a form of practice.

The 10,000 hour “rule” is supported by some research, but one thing that isn’t spoken about is that, in Ericsson’s original study, the musicians he studies were Western classical musicians, string players if I remember correctly (here’s the original study). This number may well be different for other genres of music, or maybe not. We don’t know because nobody has done the research. But again, the numbers of hours is beside the point.

It’s not the hours in your practice, it’s the quality practice in your hours and a whole bunch of other stuff that create greatness. Forget about the 10,000 hours and worry about the half-hour practice session you’re going to do today.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Geoff Allen says:

    Interesting links and video! Of course, it does make a certain amount of intuitive sense, too. It’s fairly easy to learn 4 chords on the ukulele, but very, very hard to be Yo-Yo Ma.

    I’m guessing that 20 hours of chess study would leave one still looking like a beginner, though. I’m not sure what the chess equivalent of the Four Chord Song would be. 🙂

    1. Agreed, Geoff. I think that was exactly my point. Only a small amount of quality practice can enable someone to enjoy a field, whether it’s music, chess, or badminton. But yeah, it takes a whole lot more work to be a master. Putting so much focus on what it takes to be a world-class master takes our attention away from the amount of work is necessary to have a good time. And the irony is that it’s enjoyment that keeps people motivated to put in the time necessary for supreme mastery….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.