The 10,000-Hour Rule
A CultureMap®
by Dustin Atkinson
Published on 9/13/13

Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson observed that it takes approximately 10,000 hours (10 years) of practice to reach the highest echelons of expertise. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines this “10,000-hour rule” and looks at the other ingredients one needs to become a virtuoso in a chosen field. Yale University professor Amy Chua recounts in her memoir about her parenting techniques, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a practice regimen with a similar time investment.

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Malcolm Gladwell  (b. 1963 | British Canadian writer)
to  Outliers: The Story of Success  (Malcolm Gladwell | nonfiction book | 2008)

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell studies some of the world’s most highly regarded people in a variety of professions, from athlete to attorney, and examines the cultural conditions that set them up for success. None of these “outliers,” from Mozart to Bill Gates, Gladwell argues, became successful by talent or genius alone. Their achievement required two additional factors: a lifetime of dedicated practice and extraordinary opportunity. (Opportunity, he found, can even start with a lucky birth date.) Gladwell’s deconstruction of the narrative of success exposes as mythology the common conception of a pure meritocracy fueled by innate genius. Success, he asserts, is a “group project.”

The author of four books and a New Yorker staff writer since 1996, Gladwell may himself be considered an outlier. He became famous with his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), which analyzes how events, such as a rise in popularity of Hush Puppies shoes or the drop in the New York City crime rate in the 1990s, can have an epidemic nature. But before he wrote The Tipping Point, Gladwell had spent more than a decade in journalism, grabbing opportunity and putting in his practice time.

K. Anders Ericsson  (b. 1947 | Swedish psychologist)
to  Malcolm Gladwell  (b. 1963 | British Canadian writer)

K. Anders Ericsson may be the world’s leading expert on experts. The Swedish-born psychologist has been refining his theories on the formation of expertise since the early 1990s. His advice on how to become a master of a field, based on studies he did mainly with professional musicians, can be summed up with two simple statements: First, forget the mythology of the “natural,” or of innate talent or genius, which pervades our thoughts on success. Second, practice—a lot. Experts are not born, Ericsson claims, but made, and the process takes on average 10,000 hours, or roughly 10 years.

Malcolm Gladwell incorporates Ericsson’s research and his 10,000-hour rule into Outliers, his sociological study of the cultural and historical conditions that laid the groundwork for some of history’s greatest achievers. Gladwell shows how outliers such as Bill Gates and the Beatles benefited from rare opportunities and combined them with disciplined, deliberate practice. Citing Ericsson’s research, Gladwell points out that “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

Outliers: The Story of Success  (Malcolm Gladwell | nonfiction book | 2008)
to  Bill Gates  (b. 1955 | American entrepreneur and philanthropist)

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers considers the success of “men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary.” If anyone qualifies as an outlier, it is Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder has innate talent and technical prowess, Gladwell maintains, but those were not enough to guarantee his success. Extraordinary opportunities also were essential. The first came with his 1955 birth: Nearly all Silicon Valley software-development tycoons were born between 1953 and 1956. Gates got his big break as an eighth grader, in 1968. That year his private school purchased a time-sharing computer, of a type that didn’t require laborious punch-card programming, thus allowing users to work exponentially faster. Quickly obsessed, Gates began seeking out every available computer in Seattle, racking up his 10,000 hours (the second component of success) of programming experience at a very young age. When most members of his generation were being introduced to the concept of computers, Gates was achieving mastery. Did Gates’s exceptional intelligence and his work-all-night-for-fun habit help him become the Bill Gates? Of course. But, Gladwell argues, the ambitious boy would not have started Microsoft and become an outlier without the magnificent opportunity laid at his feet.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  (Amy Chua | nonfiction book | 2011)
to  K. Anders Ericsson  (b. 1947 | Swedish psychologist)

In her controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yale law professor Amy Chua delineates the myriad differences between the achievement-obsessed parenting practices of the Chinese and the approaches developed by their “weak-willed and indulgent” Western counterparts. Chua narrates a litany of examples that demonstrate just how much she pushed her daughters toward the dedicated, ceaseless pursuit of mastery in academics and music. She demanded her girls practice their instruments three to four hours every day and be first in their class in every subject. She employed extremely negative reinforcement, claiming it was necessary to “excoriate, punish and shame” her children when they failed to meet her standards.

Chua calls this parenting style Chinese, but her method, minus the abuse, seems to echo Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s research on the role of hard-core practice—10,000 hours of it—in the highest levels of achievement. His 1993 article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” might have been Chua’s handbook. Chua insists she is not the sadist many critics have painted her to be. Her somewhat obtuse defense includes the declaration “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

Bill Gates  (b. 1955 | American entrepreneur and philanthropist)
to  The Beatles  (English musical group | 1960–1970)

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s descriptions in Outliers of the youthful experiences of a proto–computer geek and a quartet of rockers reveal a surprising similarity: Even as teens Bill Gates and the Beatles were well on their way to the heights of accomplishment. At 13, Gates lucked into unlimited access to a school computer on which he could program at will. When that opportunity ended, he found another, at the University of Washington, and programmed there at night for hours before returning to school in the morning. By the time Gates decided to drop out of Harvard to start a company, he had amassed more than 10,000 hours of practice and was already a computing expert.

The high school years were even less typical for the Beatles. The boys were invited to be the house band for a strip club in Hamburg, Germany, where they played marathon sets of eight-plus hours, soaking up the booze and sex in equal measure with what little energy remained. There they put in a large chunk of the 10,000 hours that eventually led to their tremendous fame. The lads went to Hamburg as a talented high school band; when they left, they were the Beatles.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  (Amy Chua | nonfiction book | 2011)
to  D’Angelo  (b. 1974 | American singer and songwriter)

When psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues established that achieving virtuosity requires roughly 10,000 hours, or 10 years, of concentrated practice, they focused their research on high-level musicians, who are notoriously dedicated in their practice regimens. The R&B artist D’Angelo, who was described by one reviewer as a “self-taught prodigy in touch with the ultimate muse,” began to play the piano at age three. But after releasing two albums—Brown Sugar (1995) and Voodoo (2000)—the much-lauded singer dropped out of the public eye. During his self-imposed isolation, according to Questlove of the Roots, D’Angelo was busy putting in “10,000 Gladwellian hours to master the guitar.”

The Machiavellian methods of Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, also seem to bear out Ericsson’s research. Determined to make her daughters masters of the violin and piano, she started their musical training when they were toddlers. Whereas American parents she knew would demand that their children practice piano half an hour per day, Chua writes, she considered two or three hours necessary to see the results she expected. Right on cue, at age 14, Sophia Chua won a piano competition that culminated in her playing at Carnegie Hall.

The Beatles  (English musical group | 1960–1970)
to  Outliers: The Story of Success  (Malcolm Gladwell | nonfiction book | 2008)

By the time the Beatles launched the British Invasion on American shores in 1964, they had already played thousands of hours together and performed live some 1,200 times. As a green, unpolished high school group, the boys had seized an unpromising-sounding opportunity to play at a strip club in Hamburg, seven nights a week, all night long. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes this time as the Beatles’ “Hamburg crucible.” Commenting on Gladwell’s assessment, Paul McCartney acknowledges the importance of the experience: “We had so much practice that by the time we got famous, we really knew what we were doing, and we were a good cohesive unit as a band.”

Citing psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s finding that 10,000 hours of practice is more integral to achievement than innate talent, Gladwell posits that the Beatles became great because of their intensive rehearsal and performance schedule. McCartney offers a qualification: With accomplished groups, he says, “you always will find that amount of work in the background. But I don’t think it’s a rule that if you do that amount of work, you’re going to be as successful as the Beatles.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother  (Amy Chua | nonfiction book | 2011)
to  Outliers: The Story of Success  (Malcolm Gladwell | nonfiction book | 2008)

In her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua outlines some of the rules of her demanding parenting style: Her daughters were forbidden sleepovers, playdates, participation in school plays, grades lower than an A and the option of choosing what musical instrument they would study. By supervising and controlling each minute of her daughters’ lives, Chua meant to provide them with every possible opportunity to succeed in life; as one reviewer put it, she “was not about to raise prizeless slackers.”

Malcolm Gladwell acknowledges that to become an outlier, “You have to have parents who encourage and support you,” but he notes that the larger historical and cultural context has as much impact as any amount of personal, much less parental, will. His book describes case after case of people who achieved great success based on their own obsessions rather than those planted in them by their parents. Looking at famous soccer players, 19th-century industrialists and the biggest corporate lawyers, Gladwell finds a confluence of factors—a culmination of talent, dedication and luck. As any parent—including Chua, who ultimately failed to make her younger daughter a violin prodigy—knows, there are some things you cannot control.