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10,000 Hours

       I heard Johnny Cash’s daughter, Roseanne, on NPR a couple of days ago. She’s releasing a new album and was asked about performing in public for the corresponding tour. She responded (and I’m paraphrasing) that “Malcolm Gladwell talks about how you need to do something for 10,000 hours to become an expert. I’ve probably put in my 10,000 hours, so I guess I’m starting to be comfortable.” Now, I love Gladwell and I think that it’s great that, through reading his book Outliers, more and more people are aware of the “10,000 hours” concept of expertise. I’m posting this note, though, because I’ve heard at least 3 or 4 times over the past year about this “great idea that Gladwell has about 10,000 hours,” and each time I hear it, I go a little nuts.

       The reason is that this idea originated with a psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson who published his first book on theories of expertise in 1991. I believe that Gladwell properly credits Ericsson in Outliers, and I think that he does a good job of giving examples that a lot of people can understand. It’s just that I had been introduced to, and discussed in detail, Ericsson’s ideas more than a year before audiobooking (Reading? Listening to?) Outliers and I don’t want Dr. Ericsson to get swept under the rug.

       For those who are uninitiated, the “10K hours” theory is a rule of thumb that connects determined, dedicated practice for that length of time to expertise. It’s a cool theory because it applies to a wide variety of fields, and it actually works pretty well to remove some of the focus away from talent as the main determiner of success. Ten-thousand hours roughly translates to 20 hours per week for 10 years (so ten years is often a part of the description) of practice dedicated to getting better. An off-hand example: Mozart was composing at the age of 5, but none of his early pieces are widely performed today. His middle-period, where he starts to get into a creative groove, begins in his mid-teens. Without a written record of his practice habits, we don’t know precisely how many hours he was playing and composing, but the 10 year/10K hours guideline seems reasonable.

       Another interesting example that Gladwell uses is from a study of Masters-level music students who were asked to estimate the total practice time of their musical careers. While it might not be outlandish to suppose that students at the same level of study would have some similarity of practice time, the surprise was that there was only variation within a fairly tight range. They didn’t find any students who had either been so gifted that they didn’t need to practice much (i.e. less than 9,000 hours), or so untalented that they were able to get to where they were just by practicing much more than everyone else (i.e. more than 11 or 12,000 hours). Again, I think Gladwell's analysis is great: there is probably a basement level where a person has to be “talented enough” to not be annihilatingly frustrated, but beyond that, everyone has to work hard to keep progressing.

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