Bryan Caplan  

Your Big Doubts About the 10,000 Hour Rule Are Well-Founded

Philip Booth on Thomas Piketty... Mind Your Own Beesness...
Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer's "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" (Psychological Review 1993) isn't just one of the most famous articles in the history of academic psychology.  Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, the article's bullet points are now famous around the globe.  It is from this article and related research the Gladwell distills his "10,000 Hour Rule." 

What does the 10,000 Hour Rule really say?  A few caveats aside, the Rule says that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is both necessary and sufficient for world-class expertise.  Listen, for example, to Gladwell talk about musical expertise.
The striking thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any "naturals," musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any "grinds," people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
This may seem like journalistic hyperbole, but it's quite close to the original research.  Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer:
Contrary to the popular "talent" view that asserts that differences in practice and experience cannot account for differences in expert performance, we have shown that the amount of a specific type of activity (deliberate practice) is consistently correlated with a wide range of performance including expert-level performance, when appropriate developmental differences (age) are controlled. Because of the high costs to the individuals and their environments of engaging in high levels of deliberate practice and the overlap in characteristics of deliberate practice and other known effective training situations, one can infer that high levels of deliberate practice are necessary to attain expert level performance. Our theoretical framework can also provide a sufficient account of the major facts about the nature and scarcity of exceptional performance. [emphasis mine]
We attribute the dramatic differences in performance between experts and amateurs-novices to similarly large differences in the recorded amounts of deliberate practice. Furthermore, we can account for stable individual differences in performance among individuals actively involved in deliberate practice with reference to the monotonic relation between accumulated amount of deliberate practice and current level of performance.
Although I've found great value in Ericsson's research, his skepticism about innate talent always struck me as crazy.  Yes, experts energetically hone their crafts.  But everywhere I look, I see Gladwell's "naturals" - people who are good despite relatively little time investment - and "grinds" - people who are mediocre despite massive time investment.  Only recently, though, did I discover a pile of research that confirms my big doubts about the 10,000 Hour Rule.  Highlights of the highlights:
More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular science writing--but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.
The case of chess:
On average, deliberate practice explained 34% of the reliable variance in chess performance, leaving 66% unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors. We conclude that deliberate practice is not sufficient to account for individual differences in chess performance. The implication of this conclusion is that some people require much less deliberate practice than other people to reach an elite level of performance in chess. We illustrate this point in Fig. 2 using Gobet and Campitelli's (2007) chess sample, with the 90 players classified based on their chess ratings as "master" (≥2200, n = 16), "expert" (≥2000, n = 31), or "intermediate" (<2000, n = 43). There were large differences in mean amount of deliberate practice across the skill groups: master M = 10,530 h (SD = 7414), expert M = 5673 h (SD = 4654), and intermediate M = 3179 h (SD = 4615). However, as the SDs suggest, there were very large ranges of deliberate practice within skill groups. For example, the range for the masters was 832 to 24,284 h--a difference of nearly three orders of magnitude. Furthermore, there was overlap in distributions between skill groups. For example, of the 16 masters, 31.3% (n = 5) had less deliberate practice than the mean of the expert group, one skill level down, and 12.5% (n = 2) had less deliberate practice than the mean of the intermediate group, two skill levels down. In the other direction, of the 31 intermediates, 25.8% (n = 8) had more deliberate practice than the mean of the expert group, one skill level up, and 12.9% (n = 4) had more deliberate practice than the mean of the master group, two skill levels up.
The figure:


The case of music:
On average across studies, deliberate practice explained about 30% of the reliable variance in music performance, leaving about 70% unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors. We conclude that deliberate practice is not sufficient to account for individual differences in music performance. Results of other studies provide further support for this conclusion. Simonton (1991) found a large amount of variability in the amount of time it took famous classical composers to have their first "hit," and that the interval between the first composition and the first hit correlated significantly and negatively with maximum annual output, lifetime productivity, and posthumous reputation. Composers who rose to fame quickly-the most "talented"-had the most successful careers. Furthermore, Sloboda, Davidson, Howe, and Moore (1996) noted that although students at a selective music school ("high achievers") had accumulated more "formal practice" than students who were learning an instrument at a non-music school ("pleasure players"), there were some individuals at each skill level (grade) who did "less than 20 per cent of the mean amount of practice for that grade" and others who did "over four times as much practice than average to attain a given grade" (p. 301).
If deliberate practice doesn't explain everything, what does?  Lots of stuff.  Starting age.  IQ. Personality.  Specific cognitive skills, too.  Consider working memory:
Ericsson and colleagues have argued that measures of working memory capacity themselves reflect acquired skills (Ericsson & Delaney, 1999; Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995), but working memory capacity and deliberate practice correlated near zero in this study (r = .003). There was also no evidence for a Deliberate Practice × Working Memory Capacity interaction, indicating that working memory capacity was no less important a predictor of performance for pianists with thousands of hours of deliberate practice than it was for beginners. 
Fortunately, we can salvage most of the original research behind the 10,000 Hour Rule.  Instead of thinking of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as a mandatory minimum for expertise, take it as a rule of thumb: On average, a world-class expert has to practice for about 10,000 hours to reach the top.  Instead of thinking of 10,000 hours as a guarantee of expertise, adopt a pluralistic and probabilistic approach: 10,000 hours combined with lots of innate talent will usually take you to the top. 

Most importantly, though, think of deliberate practice as a general theory of improvement, not a special theory of expertise!  Some people learn more much easily than others.  But almost anyone can improve in almost anything.  How?  By deliberately practicing the specific skills they wish to improve.  Research on deliberate practice doesn't undermine intelligence research by showing that genius is a myth.  Instead it reinforces Transfer of Learning research by showing that learning is highly specific.

HT: GMU econ prodigy Nathaniel Bechhofer

COMMENTS (17 to date)

In the quest to explain outstanding performance, I propose that drive is the major factor. Or perhaps you would call it motivation or ambition. What does a person want to do? That is what determines outcomes, it seems to me, and surely it prompts people to practice.

I wonder if attempts have been made to measure this "drive" attribute. Probably it is very difficult to define and then measure.

Scott Young writes:

Notice which fields point to somewhat larger influences of practice: music, chess and sports. All fields with well defined and understood practice requirements.

Is there any signs in the theory as to the causal direction of this correlation?

Do fields where the nature of practice is well-understood create an opportunity for practice to create divergence in expertise? Or is it the other way around, that the importance of practice for that particular field has encouraged us to study and perfect its application in that area? Maybe both?

My understanding of Ericsson's underlying research was that time invested wasn't sufficient, that it needed to be of the proper kind, what he calls deliberate practice. Given that what constitutes deliberate practice is harder to determine in some fields than others, that could also explain some of the variance. Knowing how to deliberately practice chess is somewhat easier than knowing how to deliberately practice a profession, for instance.


Steve writes:

It seems to me that a lot more people dislike the idea of innate ability than like it, so we can expect continuing studies showing that it is unimportant.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Back in 2006, Stuart Buck had a nice post about this. An excerpt:

"When I was a graduate teaching assistant, it was my great displeasure to teach a beginning guitar class for 20-25 music education majors at the University of Georgia. ... for three quarters a year for two years. ... well over a hundred students.

"Out of 20 students, none of whom had touched a guitar before in their lives, there would be a few who were just naturals, who could instantly mimic anything that I showed them, and who could make remarkable progress without any sign of having practiced during the week. And there would be a handful of students at the bottom for whom everything was an immense struggle, and who -- despite the ability to play some other instrument such as the saxophone or piano -- simply could not get their fingers to play even the simplest chord on the guitar. In other words, students could have very different levels of ability even as absolute beginners -- which indicates to me that there really is such a thing as talent."

Timothy Kenny writes:

I think this says it all:

"We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued."

In sports, games and music, one of the most important skills is speed. You need to be able to perform quickly in the moment, and this requires building "muscle memory."

Practicing the same things over and over again until you don't have to think about them any more (and to build muscle/agility in sports) is a key difference between these domains and explains a lot of the difference.

"Knowing how to deliberately practice chess is somewhat easier than knowing how to deliberately practice a profession, for instance."

Agreed. Innovation is also a bigger factor in professions, and harder to come by just putting in the time. The culture of many professions also prevents thinking in terms of "practice" (law and medicine are good exceptions). There is usually a set amount of time when you "learn" the profession, and then you go do it and many people stop learning at that point and just slowly build their skills over time.

Plus, those people who "do" continuing education often don't take it that seriously. How many people take notes at conferences? Read all the materials? Have those notes organized? Get spaced repetitions on the info over time?

1% is probably not far off.

I remember reading a study on doctors and their abilities to diagnose during checkups and on average their skills went down slightly after 10 years.

In the quest to explain outstanding performance, I propose that drive is the major factor. Or perhaps you would call it motivation or ambition. What does a person want to do? That is what determines outcomes, it seems to me, and surely it prompts people to practice.

Motivation is definitely a big factor. And sports and games tend to attract people who are more competitive. Having that competition makes it so that the participants can feed off each other and push each other to be their best. In most professions this doesn't exist, and if it does it isn't as easy to measure, and even if it is easy to measure nobody usually cares outside of the industry.

The study I'm most interested to see is comparing the experts who put in 1,000 hours versus the experts that put in 20,000 hours. How can they be at the same level? How could that ever happen? What are their stories?

I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of it had to do with motivation, creativity and networking.

Timothy Kenny writes:

To Scott's tends to look for domains that are easy to understand and quantify. These seem to also be the ones where practice is also important and easy to measure.

Tom West writes:

Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school...

Nobody seems to notice this line. To get into such a school basically represents that you are already in the top ~0.1% of ability of the population in your year.

In other words, once we've massively screened for talent, work makes a big difference.

Jack PQ writes:

I suspect talent and effort are correlated. If you're not good at it, you are not motivated to put in more effort. So it's hard to tell if the success or failure is due to talent or effort (or lack thereof).

Silas Barta writes:

What Tom_West said. The selection process significantly alters the relevance of the other factors.

Also, do they ever check for chemical/hormone levels in high-achievers? Or would that be too un-PC?

JA writes:

The 10,000 hour "rule" is one of the greatest scams. Anyone who has watched a group of children do anything will immediately see some are far more talented than others. Also, in many endeavors the outsized payouts are reserved for far fewer than 100 in the world (tennis, golf, chess, etc.). There are far more people devoting 10,000 hours than there are positions of greatness available.

Look at all the minor league baseball players who can't break into the majors (their lifetime earnings are about half those of others from comparable socioeconomic backgrounds who did not play baseball). Consider tennis or golf, being ranked 300th in the world is hardly a viable career path (you'd earn less in your peak years than most professionals). Gladwell and his ilk have no explanation for the admittedly talented (but not super-talented) who spend over 10,000 hours for naught.

Besides chess, other sports strongly refute the 10,000 hour argument: darts, running, skeleton. Gladwell feeds on parents' narcissism and dreams with false promises to their children's detriment.

Joshua writes:

I just wanted to reinforce what Jack PQ said. In all of the discussions I've read regarding the 10k rule, none of them have tried to take selection effects into account. People who are innately bad at something will often stop practicing it - rationally trading that time for something more rewarding. The people who reach 10k hours are the people who a) enjoy the practice because they are good at it b) enjoy the practice for some other reason, or c) are too pigheaded to quit.

Steven writes:

I generally describe the notion of talent as a conspiracy between the lucky and the lazy. The lucky, the people who got started early, whose birthdays give them the advantage at selection time, for whom early promise is developed by selection and coaching, like to explain their success in terms of some natural ability. It makes them special rather than just hardworking.

The lazy like the idea of talent because it allows them to fail and excuses their lack of effort, their unwillingness to put in the time. I can't draw, I'm clumsy, tone deaf, untalented. It's an excuse for not trying. Not sticking through the period when you are consciously incompetent. Not working out what you're doing wrong and trying to fix it.

But even if talent is real, the idea that skills can be acquired to an adequate, even impressive degree if you commit to it is an idea worth promoting. At least it shifts attention away from fate onto what you yourself are willing to do. You might still fail but at least you'll know you gave it a good shot.

Arthur_500 writes:
once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school

Music is a good example to use here. One has to have an innate understanding of the music theory in order to begin to excel. I studied piano for many years and am very adept at placing my fingers on the keys instructed by the music sheet. However, 10,000 hours of effort do not make me a good musician, simply an adept technician.

However, I have worked at other skills and seen the time fly by effortlessly. My "talent" is apparent in those endeavors. It comes from having an innate understanding of the "big picture" and an enjoyment of the effort necessary.

Think about a Professional Football Player; this individual works out six hours each day. Then he has practice. Then he must spend hours looking at films in which he understands what it is that he is looking at. Many talented individuals make it through the college level and still do not have an understanding of the game they love to play. then they have to work out year-round and they do not have the enjoyment or self-discipline to do this. Finally they need to understand what they are seeing in film and all too many young men really don't see anything other than guys playing football until it is pointed out to them. These guys never make it in the Pros.

Talent has been constantly downplayed. However, I would argue that individuals have certain innate understandings and that is the basis of their talent exploitation. Just because you train to run does not mean you will ever be a good runner. Just because I trained on the piano it is obvious that I will never be another Van Cliburn. Just because I went to business school will not make me successful at business.

10,000 hours of effort is only worthwhile if there is a basic talent underneath.

JKB writes:

I have to agree with Arthur_500. Those with "talent" probably are mostly those who gain insight into the activity. Not just deliberate practice but an understanding of the fundamentals. Not only intellectually, but they are also able to play with them in new ways, see the effect, create new combinations.

Now obviously, some will "naturally" have this insight, i.e., see it so young they are unaware of its uniqueness. Others, many gain it after hours, perhaps 10,000 hours of practice.

I had a small leap like that in Argentine Tango dancing. I'd take several years of ballroom lessons, was somewhat competent, but not a good dancer. Then watching a good pro, trying to figure out how he led moves, I saw it. It's hard to explain, but he was moving from his hip. Seeing it, I was able to adjust practice to try to do the same. With effort, I was able to use it. Lose it. Then regain it. Then I was able to start to manipulate it. I took a leap in ability. I claim no expertise, but I did see that there is practice and there is insight. I suspect natural dancers, perhaps athletes, gain this ability to control and use their hip motion at an early age. They probably don't even know how much it drives their "talent".

Evil Racist Bigot writes:

Isn't there also an issue of people who heavily invest in an activity being someone self selected? People generally do not enjoy activities at which they consistently fail to achieve any success.

Thus, if you are lacking in natural aptitude for an activity, its likely you will have given up on it long before clocking 10,000 hours of practice.

Mark S writes:

Very interesting research, thank you!

In the talk Cal Newport gave at Google about why "follow your passion" is terrible career advice, he also talks about 10K Hour Rule and how *little* deliberate practice knowledge workers do:

Floccina writes:

Kareem Abdul Jabbar was once quoted in Spot Magazine as saying that he did not like playing basketball. Also consider Africans who do not play basketball until college but are great players.

Athletes are born and not made.

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