Hey gang, let’s have a “rap session.” Everyone have a seat in this totally casual high school auditorium, and I’ll be sitting up here on the edge of the stage. I’m going to loosen my tie to show you that you can relate to me. My name is Mr. Curley, but the kids… they call me Jack. We’re here to talk about expertise. The going theory is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. That makes me an expert at sex! Something like sex, at least. I’ve probably said too much.
The “10,000 Hour Rule” was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers. He used examples like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and The Beatles to show that mastery of a skill comes at around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. It makes sense. The more you practice, the better you get. By his theory, you could become an expert at anything if you’re willing to practice 8 hours a day for 1,250 days, or about 3.5 years.
The problem is that it’s not exactly true. Not only is the number wrong; the entire premise that practice is what makes you an expert is false. Five psychologists published a paper in Intelligence, an academic journal, stating that practice can only take you so far. Douglas Main explained in Popular Science:
In the study, authors re-analyze scores of studies on elite chess players and musicians, but especially the former, since every player has an easily quantifiable numerical rating. They point out that there is enormous variation in how long it took for people to get to the level of a chess master. One player in a 2007 study, for example, “took 26 years of serious involvement in chess to reach a master level, while another player took less than 2 years to reach this level,” they write. They conclude that practice can only explain one-third of the variation in sucess in chess and music, and probably other fields as well.
The evidence is “quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice,” they write. They suggest that other factors together explain the lion’s share of success (at least in these two most-studied areas), such as intelligence, starting age, personality, and other genetic factors.
The good news is that you don’t need to practice the guitar constantly for years to become the next Eddie Van Halen. The bad news is that you probably had to start practicing about 20 years ago to do it.