Challenging the 10,000 hour rule for expertise

The nature vs. nurture argument has been around a long time and one area that has been much contested is about what it takes to achieve expertise at something, say at music or games or science or the professions. Is it innate ability or practice? The likely answer is ‘a bit of both’. But how much of each? In 1869, Francis Dalton argued, based on observations that certain kinds of expertise ran in families, that it must be due to something innate and genetic in origin. But others argued that it was due more to practice.

In 1993, an influential paper by Ericsson and colleagues was published that found that elite violinists and musicians had practiced about 10,000 hours over their lifetimes, whereas amateurs had done much less, and they argued for the importance of practice. This conclusion was criticized by those who argued that those who had some innate skill practiced more because they experienced the reward of getting better, while those with less skill lost interest and slacked off, so that no causal connection between practice and skill could be drawn.

I too had heard of this ‘10,000 hours’ rule of thumb but took it to mean that, given a basic floor of talent and interest, that was the amount of time required to become expert at what one does. But as with all such easily remembered rules-of-thumb, it got overgeneralized suggesting that anyone could achieve anything just by practicing a lot and the idea of 10,000 hours, or roughly ten years, of ‘deliberate practice’ being needed to achieve real skill and expertise in something took off and became part of folklore.

A meta-analysis of the literature by Brooke MacNamara (a professor of psychology at my university) and others looked at expertise in various domains. (If you cannot access the article due to a paywall, you can read a detailed discussion of it in Slate written by three people, one of whom is an author of the original paper.)

They found that the value of deliberate practice has been considerably overstated.

Moderator analyses revealed that the strength of the relationship between deliberate practice and performance varied by domain. In terms of percentage of variance in performance explained, the effect of deliberate practice was strong for games (26%), music (21%), and sports (18%), and much weaker for education (4%) and professions (< 1% and not statistically significant). … Moderator analyses further revealed that the effect of deliberate practice on performance tended to be larger for activities that are highly predictable (e.g., running) than for activities that are less predictable (e.g., handling an aviation emergency), as we hypothesized. … What explains the variance in performance that deliberate practice does not explain? There are probably many factors. One may be the age at which a person starts serious involvement in a domain. Ericsson et al. (1993) argued that any performance advantage associated with starting age simply reflects the fact that a person who starts at a young age has more time to accumulate deliberate practice than a person who starts at a later age. However, Gobet and Campitelli (2007) and Howard (2012) found that starting age negatively predicted chess rating even after statistically controlling for deliberate practice. This evidence suggests that there may be an optimal developmental period for acquiring complex skills, as there seems to be for acquiring language.

The authors conclude:

Ericsson and his colleagues’ (1993) deliberate-practice view has generated a great deal of interest in expert performance, but their claim that individual differences in performance are largely accounted for by individual differences in amount of deliberate practice is not supported by the available empirical evidence.

So it looks like you cannot get to Carnegie Hall with just practice, practice.


  1. Jockaira says

    So it looks like you cannot get to Carnegie Hall with just practice, practice.

    Mebbe. But Jack Benny did it, admittedly with more than 39 years practice. It’s generally agreed that Benny was not so great with the violin (just really good), but it’s a demonstrated fact that his approximately 40,000 hours of practice and renting the venue got him the accolades he believed he deserved.


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