Being exceptional at something is often attributed to one’s genetics. Talent is passed down from parents, grandparents, it seems, whether that’s musical or artistic skill, being good with numbers or a dab-hand with a pipette. No doubt there are significant genetic factors involved, but there are almost certainly environmental factors in the mix too. Perhaps the two work synergistically so that expression of unique genes allows a talent to develop well if it is suitably nurtured.

However, some researchers believe that talent is learned and earned through extended and intense practice of a skill rather than being an innate expression of genes that would otherwise lie dormant. This notion is nowhere more succinctly encapsulated than in the 10,000 hours rule posited by psychologist Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, and made famous by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”.

In essence Ericsson’s theory suggests that sufficient practice in a particular skill can take anyone to the level of proficiency equivalent to that heard in the playing of a top concert pianist. Gladwell wholeheartedly encompasses this notion pointing out that great sportspeople, business leaders and performers all got their 10,000 hours practice in their particular art early in life. This helped them to excel precociously, allowing them to shine while their duller contemporaries were still grappling with the basics.

Gladwell cites the 10,000 hours The Beatles played in Hamburg, between 1960 and 1964. This opportunity gave them something few musicians had at the time leading to their ultimate greatness as musicians and song writers. He cites Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Gates is an examplar partly because he had access to a computer in 1968 at the age of 13 and spent 10,000 hours programming before the vast majority of his peers even knew what a computer was. There are 10,000-hour concert pianists, violin virtuosi, artists, and synthetic chemists too.

I’ve been writing professionally for more than two decades and playing guitar since age 12. Now, I’m not claiming to be concert level in either writing or guitar playing, but surely I’ve passed my 10,000 hours. My readers and listeners might suggest I still need another 10,000, and Ericsson might agree because the 10,000-hour rule is not what it seems.

“I might emphasize how deliberate practice is different from just doing or engaging in activities in the domain,” he told me. “I might disagree with some of Gladwell’s examples as they do not all of them illustrate sustained focus on deliberate practice.” He added that, “In music, people do not seem to win international competitions with less than 25,000 hours of solitary practice; most of that deliberate.” So, Erricson’s own rule is that thousands of hours of dedicated “practice”, and not simply everyday doing of an activity, is the important point.

10,000 hours is about 90 minutes practice every day for twenty years. Which might explain why the average piano-learning child doesn’t make it to concert level. Three hours a day gets you there within a decade, so start at age 10 and you’re done before you leave your teens. Unfortunately, passing the 10,000 hour point exactly is not going to be a skills tipping point. Learning and expertise are gradual processes, skills evolve with practice, talent grows. There will be a vast range of time periods over which each individual reaches their peak of proficiency, their concert level you might say, in whatever field.

Indeed, Ericsson confirmed that 10,000 hours isn’t necessarily enough for some skills. “I tend to emphasize that if there are some people who are gifted even they need to put in 10,000 hours in many domains, like music, which leads one to question what would happen if any motivated person embarked on that path,” he told me. Could anyone become highly talented simply through achieved thousands of hours of dedicated practice? This brings us full circle to the nature versus nurture argument…unfortunately.

Perhaps scientifically speaking, 10,000 hours is purely a metaphor for “lots of practice”. If you want to achieve “concert level” whether at the piano or at the laboratory bench, 10,000 hours is going to get you close to that goal. That’s a lot of practice whichever way you play.


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