Debunking the 10,000-Hours-of-Practice Theory

Now that I brought up the subject of music with my previous post, I want to express my skepticism of the popular theory there is a universal “magic” number of 10,000 hours of practice that one has to complete in order to achieve top levels of performance in pretty much any profession. You can probably guess at this point that what I know about music is somehow contradictory to this theory.

Book cover: Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

The theory of 10,000-hours of practice was introduced in a best-selling book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. This book is one of the worst non-fiction books I’ve ever read, as it is not well-researched and written in a sensationalist manner. Following a recent Asiana plane crash in San Francisco, a Korean blogger wrote a very thorough fact-based critique of Gladwell’s Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes, which is one of the chapters in his Outliers book. (That chapter seemed suspect to me when I read the book as Gladwell had problems with Russian geography and also failed to recount one of the key episodes of the Cold War with any accuracy.) The chapter on music practice sounded dissonant to my experience with it. If someone knowledgeable in statistics could redo the analysis of hockey players’ birthdays, the takedown of Outliers would be complete.

I don’t mean to bash this book. It is true that Gladwell stimulated many smart people to think about their work in new ways. However, when we consider introducing something new into our professional practice, we want to have some evidence-based discipline to fall back on, and best-selling non-fiction books are not where you’d find that. Unfortunately, many Gladwell readers didn’t realize that.

Recent Update

The update on his 10,000-hour theory in Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article is a mixed bag. One one hand, he continues down the same pseudo-scientific path, citing a study of composers, who, “in almost all cases” “did not create their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years” (except three that took nine or eight). What is exactly that “greatest work” that Paganini composed in exactly the tenth (not ninth or eleventh) year of his experience with composition? How was it ascertained that all the works that followed were uniformly better than what he composed in the first nine years? How was it determined with such amazing precision when exactly he started with composition? Besides, if there is a data set of numbers ten and up, nine doesn’t make an outlier.

On the other hand, Gladwell is onto something when he says, give me an example of an NBA point guard who has not spent 10,000 hours on the court to get to the NBA. Calculate backwards, of course! If someone started playing basketball in Grade 1 at age 6 and joined the NBA after college, aged 22, that’s 16 years of practice, 625 hours per year or 1 hour and 43 minutes per day. A kid who wants to play basketball and be good at it can get this amount of practice by playing basketball after school. Those who don’t probably don’t make it to the NBA.

However, calculating backwards can also be used to disprove the 10,000-hour theory, as we will soon see.

So, What Do I Know?

As I wrote in my previous post, I spent several years inside the Soviet classical music education system. Many of the teachers in my school were conservatory graduates, each has trained several pupils in their career who went on to become professional musicians, and I knew some people who were enrolled in the Leningrad conservatory at the time.

This, on big stage on 10K hours? I don't think so.

This, by practicing an hour and a half per day? I don’t think so.

The numbers for musical practice Gladwell cites in his book are laughable. The “high” numbers from which he derives the 10,000-hour rule would actually correspond to those “recreational” musicians, who used the study of music to broaden their education, who would not go on to become professional musicians, but would stay in the game long enough to achieve good amateur levels. The pros practiced significantly more than that. Typical hours of practice among the conservatory students were about 6 per day, 7 days a week (this is actually better off for the muscle memory than 8 hours, 5 days a week). This translates into about 2,200 hours per year, more than a full-time job, because they didn’t stop for a few weeks to take a vacation. So, a typical conservatory graduate logged 10,000-12,000 hours during the five years of conservatory alone. The entrance to the conservatory itself required a very significant level of mastery very few achieved and the typical path was through the 10-year prep school (between ages 7 and 17), where one would ramp up to the conservatory level, starting with perhaps half as much. That’s another 14,000-17,000 hours. And the kids who were selected to enter the conservatory prep school of course began taking music lessons several years earlier. All these hours added up – conservatively – to 25,000-30,000 for a 22-year-old conservatory graduate, which was only an entry level into the musical performance profession. Very few of those would become concert pianists and violinists or celebrated performers whose recordings of classical compositions you could by in a store. (Most would play in an orchestra or switch to teaching music at some level.) Their number of practice hours would continue to grow at a rate of at least 10,000 every five years, certainly exceeding 60,000 by the time they reached peaks of their performing careers.

Calculating Backwards Again

These numbers can be easily checked by calculating backwards. Ten thousand divided by 17-18 years for a recent conservatory graduate works out to about 1 hour and 35 minutes per day, which is not going to get you anywhere on the professional path. Actually the recently published biography of Viktoria Mullova (who won Weniawski, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky competitions in the early 1980s and then went on to a very long and successful soloist career) mentions that she put more practice time before leaving home for school in the morning. So, 10,000 is not even near the ballpark.

Deliberate Practice Is Still Key; We Just Need Smarter Ways to Think About It

The first couple of points are trivial. First, we have to accept there is no single, universal number. Some disciplines simply require much more time than others. Second, different people learn at different paces. Some learners need more time and some will need less, relative to the “average” number for their discipline.

Third and more importantly, the pace of learning is not constant. People’s paces of learning to learn vary, too, further increasing the variation of total learning times. The pace can also be accelerated deliberately by learning to learn. (A trick my music teachers taught me: memorize the score as early as possible; then you can repeatedly practice difficult parts while your eyes look at your hands and the instrument instead of staring at the sheet music.) Mullova’s biography notes how her first music teacher (whom she started working with at age four) observed not only her playing, but also her learning, and how he insisted that her father rearrange his work schedule to be present at every lesson. That was another technique used by Soviet music teachers aimed at accelerating the learning between lessons. Techniques of learning to learn certainly vary by discipline.

Accelerate Learning and Create the Time Advantage

Fourth and still more importantly, many fields have individuals driven to excel and who can spend a few thousand hours a year and get fast at learning (by choosing a field where they can do it naturally, by learning to learn, or both). These people don’t just reach their destination ahead of the crowd and then rest on their laurels. They can dedicate decades of their lives to their passions, so they can use the time advantage to redefine the standards of competence and excellence in their fields. This multiplies the time it takes others to get there and can place it out of their reach. Classical music is an example of the exploited time advantage. The modern, technically difficult repertoire was created by generations of composers and performers who spent their whole lives pushing their artistic and technical limits. Anyone who wants to repeat the performances of the previous generation of musicians faces a huge task.

Examples of using deliberate practice for competitive advantage by creating time with accelerated learning can probably be found in many other fields.

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One Response to Debunking the 10,000-Hours-of-Practice Theory

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2013 | Learning Agile and Lean

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