10,000 hours

That’s how long it takes to get to be a world-class expert at something.

Or 8,000 if you merely want to be good.

There’s an extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book over at The Guardian today, which backs up my earlier post on the irrelevance of talent.

My thesis there, backed up by Gladwell, is that hard work is it. There’s no magic spark, no such thing as god-given genius. Just bloody hard work over a period of years.

To quote from the article:

“This idea – that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice – surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.”

The number comes up again and again, in studies across all fields. 10,000 hours of practice will make you a world-beater.

K Anders Ericsson and his colleagues studied violinists at Berlin’s music academy. In addition to the fact that the world-class violinists had 10,000 hours under their belts, they found this important information:

There were no outliers.

No naturals who could beat everyone else while practising for less time. And no grinders, who worked harder than everyone else but didn’t make it to the top.

Talent equals hard work.
Hard work equals talent.

So how long is ten thousand hours?

That’s twenty hours of practice each week for ten years, with two weeks off each year for holidays.

I know how hard I’m working on my scripts.

How about you?

13 responses to “10,000 hours”

  1. But then how does this explain people who have written for years and then you read their stuff and it’s no good? Surely there must also be a capacity to learn and improve as well.

  2. Kinda depends how much they’ve written for years… 1 hour a night, five days a week, for five years only buys you 1,250 hours… Nowhere near enough to even get acceptable (estimated at about 4,000 hours in the violin study), let alone good.

  3. There’s a very simple logical issue with your argument that talent talent is irrelevant (which, incidentally, isn’t what Gladwell is claiming).

    The statement “All successful people put in 10,000 hours practice” is not logically the same as “All people who put in 10,000 hours are successful”. It’s the same mistake as saying, for example, “Criminals are left handed” and assuming that “All left handers are criminals”.

    So what is the thing which differentiates those who put in the hours and are successful from those who put in the hours and aren’t? (And believe me there are *plenty* of those about. Almost as many as the people who believe they’re talented and don’t need to put in the hours!)

    That differentiator could be luck. It could be being in the right place at the right time. Or it could, simply, be natural ability. Otherwise known as… talent 🙂

  4. …except that the Ericsson study does indeed suggest that hours = success, in that there was no-one who didn’t put in the 10,000 hours ranked at the top, and vice versa.

    In other words, not only have we checked that all our criminals are left-handed, we’ve also checked that we can’t find a single left-hander who isn’t a criminal.

    You could certainly argue that the no-talents had been weeded out already in the study, by virtue of not being admitted to the Berlin Academy of Music in the first place. Which would mean that hard work only matters above a certain level of natural talent – but given that we don’t know what that level is, anyone who wants to be world-class in their career is going to have to put in the 10,000 hours.

    Of course, if you just want to get by, 4,000 should be sufficient. So if you don’t start catching some breaks after that, you might want to think about giving up.

  5. “in that there was no-one who didn’t put in the 10,000 hours ranked at the top, and vice versa.”

    No, no no, you’re missing the point. It may well be true that no one who doesn’t put in the hours can be successful.

    But unless you can also show that *everyone* who puts in the hours is successful, hours alone are clearly not enough. And at that point, you have to work out what the other factors are.

    “Which would mean that hard work only matters above a certain level of natural talent – but given that we don’t know what that level is, anyone who wants to be world-class in their career is going to have to put in the 10,000 hours”

    So in other words, far from talent being irrelevant, it’s relevant. It’s just not as easy to measure as hours worked.

    The only statement you can logically make is that both talent and hard work are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success. Being talented isn’t enough on its own – but neither is working any amount of hours.

    You need to work your arse off. But you need talent too. And, it’s often forgotten, the ability to practice, analyse *and* learn is itself part of what being talented actually means.

    And when are you boys coming round to dinner? I keep badgering Kim to invite you, but she seems to be rubbish at moving from the planning stage to the implementation stage… 😉

  6. After a certain level of (academy-entering, in this case) skill, then skill becomes 100% correlated to the hard work, whether what got you to that level in the first place was innate or acquired.

    I’d actually argue that even before that level, you’ll be more effective in whatever you apply yourself to if you believe there’s no such thing as natural talent. So why hold yourself back?

    Dinner sounds like a fine plan to me. Chuck us an email.

  7. I once heard this quote;

    “When I was young all I ever wanted to do was get good at something, so I’d practice tennis or play my music a lot. I spent most of my life like this until it suddenly dawned upon me one day that life isn’t about getting good at something or everything. It’s about finding out what I’m already good at!”

    Even with those violinist’s who put in over 10000 hours, there will still be differences in the quality however minute. These differences will be directly related to the levels of natural skill each musician has.

    Talent is or never will be irrelevant.

  8. 10,000 hours. It’s a hefty challenge, but I have to admit I find it more inspiring than intimidating.

    Just one question: do hours spent staring at a blank page thinking about how the hell I’m going to make this story work count toward the 10,000?

  9. I believe 10,000 hours definitely helps. But I also believe in talent, whether it’s a magic spark, God-given, earwig-given, or whatever. There are some things that are innate and some people have them and others don’t. some people can get brilliant, others are naturally brilliant. No one knows who these people are, including the people themselves. So there. Marvellous work on your Dickens btw.

  10. Okay. Piers, you do love this argument, I’ve heard you make it before in different forms. But then I’m fond of reductio ad absurdum. Each to their own.

    So here’s mine: you’re saying that after 10,000 hours, you will be Aaron Sorkin.

    Please advise when you reach hour 9,999.


  11. Iain: I bloody well hope so.

    William: Trying to pull the old Reductio trick, eh? So Achilles is never going to catch up with that tortoise then. After all, before he gets there he has to get half-way there. And before he gets half-way there, he has to get half-way there. And so on, and so forth.

    I have, actually, already been compared to Aaron Sorkin.

    Admittedly it was for my mode of speech when excited about something being like that of Aaron on a cocaine high, but I’ll take what I can get.

  12. Hey, I’ve been compared to Tom Stoppard. Only the other week, someone said “William’s not as good as Tom Stoppard”.

    How do you define success again? And you talk up this issue of talented people who don’t do the hours versus untalented ones who do, but what about talented people who pull their finger out?

    You ignore them, the book appears to – so far as I can tell without wasting money on reading more than extracts – yet it’s a bit of a bleedin’ obvious question.

    That just smacks of taking the statistics you enjoy and ignoring the rest. So in a way, we’re kind of thinking along the same lines: I’m just going to ignore much, much more of these figures than you are. Approximately all of them. Give or take.

    Though, speaking of figures… I do have to ask. You are persistently adamant that dialogue doesn’t matter in scripts, yet it takes up 90% of most pages.

    Is this a case of don’t add up as I do, add up as I say?


  13. Piers m’dear – I’ve just finished reading Gladwell’s book and, as with The Tipping Point and Blink, it’s a slow-build of well-researched, methodically arranged concepts that merge together at the end into a kind of grand unified theory. In this case, the theory of success. Consequently, the 10,000 hours business has to also be read within the context of when you’re born, your ethnic background, class, opportunities etc. Bill Gates was almost unique in that he was born at the right time and had access to one of the earliest computers at his school. 99.9% of schools didn’t. But if they all had, he argues, how many more Bill Gates could there have been? Similarly, kids born very late in the year are nearly a year older than some of their school peers when selections for ice hockey and football teams take place in January. If there were second selections later in the year, the USA might produce twice as many great players.

    Gladwell is saying that talent plays a part – even if I had practised endlessly for my 10,000 hours, I still wouldn’t be as good as Andy Murray. Few people can do as much uncoordinated damage with a racquet as I can. However, I’d probably be better than the vast majority of other amateur tennis players my age. So, talent is one thing. Opportunity and willingness to put the hours in makes up the bulk.

    Interesting book if lacklustre after the first two.

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