Before Malcolm Gladwell presented the 10,000-Hour Rule in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, unless you were familiar with the research at university, you probably believed that musical genius was the result of being born extraordinary. His research concluded, however, that those who had a shot at elite performance had opportunities where 10,000 hours of practice or apprenticeship were available.In his book, he studied the lives of elite performers and discovered that at the top of these fields, these individuals had expended the kind of effort that pushed them towards 10,000 hours with more resources and at a faster rate than their peers. These include violinists who had a head start at achieving this benchmark sooner, programmers who had unprecedented access to systems long before this was a thing, and musicians such as the Beatles who, through necessity and opportunity, logged way more hours than anyone in their right mind would ever commit to.
As a result, “talent” and “genius” seemed to become more properly attributed — and attainable.
Not everyone agreed that it was as simple as 10,000 hours
Over time, the 10,000-hour idea took on a life of its own and, like many ideas discussed outside of context, became over-simplified. The notion that by merely engaging in “massed practice” one could ascend to heights of personal performance, seemed to ignore the data on massed vs. spaced practice. Writers at Salon.com implored readers to “Ditch the 10,000-Hour Rule” and engage in spaced-practice. Gladwell, however, defended his work by saying he had never intended for the oversimplification, that practice “isn’t a sufficient condition for success.”
There appear to be more factors that contribute to the effectiveness of recall and performance other than rote or repetition. Indeed, this is what I learned at university while studying cognitive psychology: spaced practice is more effective than massed practice and elaborative encoding and distinctiveness processing strategies are more effective than mere effort or ability.*
So you’re telling me there’s a chance?
First, what critics failed to understand is the degree of relief Gladwell’s idea gave those of us for whom any chance of elite performance had been dismissed. With a benchmark like “10,000 hours,” although daunting, it seemed as if the odds were reduced from one in a billion to one in a million. What I felt, in essence, resembled the sentiment: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”
Next, although the 10,000-hour designation speaks of the effort involved, the spaced practice findings speak to what that effective effort consists of. One does not necessarily debunk the other. Both claims move us towards Learning-Orientation and away from Performance-Orientation.
In my experience, measurable increases in competence occurred over time as long as I was willing to revisit areas of weakness — even without long bouts of mundane practice. Furthermore, this was apparent before I became aware of the rule. It took my whole adult life to reach 10,000 hours as I did not like rote practice, but after 20+ years of challenging my abilities, there was little mystery why I improved.
I believe the answer lies somewhere between the practical and the empirical, after all, we are not automatons. For me, I narrowed down three principles which had the greatest impact on my abilities. They are by no means the only three, and do not debunk either view, but rather, serve as a companion to either school of thought:
#1 Progress comes with a sense of purpose
Practicing for many years alone in the comfort of my bedroom contributed little to the kind of progress I wanted.
But when I began performing live, just knowing that my efforts contributed to a purpose gave me a new level of enthusiasm. This enthusiasm led to excitement, and the excitement increased my motivation to practice.
But as long as I was merely going through the motions, it felt meaningless.
Knowing that my efforts were for a purpose served as a catalyst for growth. This why I encourage people to get out and begin performing on stage: attaching a purpose to your efforts gives you something to work towards and a threshold to surpass.
#2 Progress comes with an awareness of competence (or lack thereof)
I have GoPro video footage of virtually every gig I’ve performed with both Love Hate Affair and Hours Quiet (except those two times I ran out of battery).
Reviewing the footage dispelled any biases I later constructed about the quality of my performance, both the overconfidence of my supposed perfection and the worry about my perceived mistakes. The instant replay video doesn’t lie. Sometimes I felt I had performed poorly but realized after review that it was nothing to worry about. I hadn’t actually embarrassed myself. And vice versa; I was able to target what I needed to work on and get better.
Some do not like reviewing footage of their performance. But here’s a little secret: the answers you are looking for are found in the very place you don’t want to look.
#3 Progress comes with a sense of interest
I could never bring myself to rehearse hours and hours of fretboard gymnastics, as much as I wanted to.
But writing guitar solos or melodies to an original song truly captured my interest.
Too often we condemn ourselves for not having the capacity to maintain our interest in what we are working on.
If this is the case, we should ask ourselves “why am I doing something I’m not interested in?”
Who are we trying to please?
Whose opinion means so much to us that we would do something antithetical to our purpose or that which gives us no meaning?
Perhaps some may be under the impression that we have to call forth our inner Joe Jackson to force us to become great. But some of us need to cultivate our interests, not tyrannize ourselves, to manifest our highest potential. Negative reinforcement, whether it comes from within or from a tyrannical taskmaster, cannot create meaning where none exists. Arguably, it may create a “better” performance, but not meaning. Meaning comes from within. When you combine that which captures your interest with self-directed, nurtured and reinforced habits, then you will begin to find the pathway to meaning.
The 10,000-Hour Rule is probably not a myth insofar as it is, outside of Gladwell’s context, an oversimplification. In addition, he doesn’t try to discount distributed or spaced practiced as far as I can tell. Instead, he provides examples of an additional attribute to consider when looking at elite performers. Furthermore, the data on spaced practice gives us an account of how that practice can be most effective. To their own degree, the Gladwell conclusion and the spaced practice research ring true to my experience as a long-time musician. It is also my experience that our best emerges when we operate with a sense of purpose, when we honestly confront our competence, and when we cultivate that which captures our interest. Without them, we are nothing more than a bunch of high-performing automatons.
*R. H. Bruning, G. J. Schraw, & M. M. Norby (BSN5), Cognitive Psychology and Instruction (5th ed.). Pearson, 2011.