In his best-selling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell described what has come to be known as the "10,000 Hour Rule". The gist of the 10KHR as it has been popularized is that many relatively ordinary people can become experts in a particular discipline or activity simply by practicing it for a long period of time, like 10,000 hours or ten years. The other popular variation is that it requires at least 10,000 hours to master a particular discipline. The meme has become popular enough to induce the predictable counter-meme headlines in many news outlets: "The 10KHR is wrong!"
Gladwell's assertion was based on some research conducted chiefly by by Dr. K. Anders Ericcson, a Swedish psychologist and professor at Florida State, who came up with the concept of improved performance through "Deliberate Practice". Ericcson has a new book out, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, that discusses Deliberate Practice in detail.
Both Ericcson and Gladwell were interviewed on a recent Freakonomics podcast, which is found here with a transcript. In summary:
So what does a view of the 10KHR and Deliberate Practice look like through the Lenses of Wisdom? Let's take a look.
Looking through the Prospecting Lens first, we see that the 10KHR as popularized has effectively become a System 1 heuristic. When we accept a rule of thumb like the 10KHR uncritically, we run afoul of a number of cognitive biases, including:
THE NARRATIVE FALLACY. In our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we often create flawed explanatory stories of the past that shape our views of the world and expectations of the future. We assign larger roles to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck.
The 10KHR is an "intentions" rule in particular. It actually disregards talent and other factors.
THEORY-INDUCED BLINDNESS. “Once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing."
The 10KHR is simplistic and "sounds right" to American audiences. We like to believe that every obstacle can be overcome with enough extended effort, which is not necessarily the case. In fact, any good entrepreneur would tell you not to waste much time and effort on a business concept that fails early. Often its better to accept the failure, or a partial success, and move on to something different, in variation if not in kind.
TRUSTING EXPERT INTUITION. “We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true. The associative machine is set to suppress doubt and to evoke ideas and information that are compatible with the currently dominant story." Kahneman is skeptical of experts because they often overlook what they do not know. Kahneman trusts experts when two conditions are met: the expert is in an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable and the expert has learned these regularities through prolonged practice. Potential for error: being mislead by “experts.”
Because it comes from a best-selling book, we believe that the 10KHR necessarily is inviolable and has been tested. In fact, it is only partially correct and only some of the time. This is a very common cognitive bias in our culture because we are always looking for filters to deal with the extreme volume of information that is available. A familiar example of this is the appearance of a product, person or book on the Oprah Winfrey show, which immediately anoints it as something worthwhile. We often rely on popular public figures to curate our beliefs and preferences for us, particularly if the subject matter is new or unfamiliar.
THE LAW OF SMALL NUMBERS. Our brains have a difficult time with statistics. Small samples are more prone to extreme outcomes than large samples, but we tend to lend the outcomes of small samples more credence than statistics warrant. System 1 is impressed with the outcome of small samples but shouldn’t be. Small samples are not representative of large samples. Potential for error? We make decisions on insufficient data.
In Outliers, Gladwell presents only a small number of examples, and they are virtually all examples of when the 10KHR has proven true. It is easy to extrapolate a few nice examples to everything, but there really was not sufficient data for that kind of application. A correlative cognitive bias is expressed as WYSIATI -- "what you see is all there is." Without counter-examples, we become overly attracted to the data that is presented.
REPRESENTATIVENESS. Similar to profiling or stereotyping, “representativeness” is the intuitive leap to make judgments based on how similar something is to something we like without taking into consideration other factors: probability (likelihood), statistics (base rate), or sampling sizes. Potential for error: Evaluating a person, place, or thing on how much it resembles something else without taking into account other salient factors.
The 10KHR conveniently boils down success to one data point -- amount of hours expended on practice. What it does not account for in particular is raw talent and the nature of the practice. As Ericcson corrects, its not just any practice that will do, but it must be a special form of practice called Deliberate Practice that entails feedback, trying new things and probably good coaching.
OVERLOOKING STATISTICS. When given purely statistical data we generally make accurate inferences. But when given statistical data and an individual story that explains things we tend to go with the story rather than statistics. We favor stories with explanatory power over mere data. Potential for error: stereotyping, profiling, and making general inferences from particular cases rather than making particular inferences from general cases.
Like many attractive books intended for public consumption, Outliers expresses its ideas in terms of narratives about a few salient examples, not lots of raw statistics. This creates a selectively bias.
For sure, the Deliberate Practice model also suffers from some of the same System 1 biases as the 10KHR to some degree -- after all, it is in effect a more robust formula that incorporates the 10KHR. However, the "deliberative" aspect of it clearly requires the employment of System 2. Only after practice is measured, there is feedback and more difficult tasks are attempted can it be said that mere practice or repetition becomes "Deliberate Practice."
Even then, there is no guarantee that the result of Susanne Bargman or Bob Fisher will be achieved, as it is difficult to compare the relative talent levels of a would-be deliberate practicer with a successful deliberate practicer. It is clear, however, that Deliberate Practice is a viable method to achieving goals and might be said to be necessary even if not sufficient in most cases, as success is even more rare in cases where there has not been sufficiently deliberate practice.
Looking now through the Mimetic Lens, we see a part of mimetic theory that is so common that we ordinarily neglect it -- namely, positive mimetics.
Positive mimetics is simply the idea that we learn most things by copying others. By having a model, we have something to emulate and can set goals.
The Deliberate Practice model incorporates models and coaching using models. The 10KHR really does not, and tends to promote the myth of "doing it all alone" as the path to success.
In the discussion above, one of Gladwell's points it that we benefit by the people who have come before us. Ericcson notes in his portion of the podcast that modern musicians and athletes are generally much more skilled that early contemporaries because they have built on those foundations with successful coaching.
Sue Bargmann notably employed Christina Aguilera as her model and was looking to achieve a certain "big voice" quality to her singing as one of her intermediate goals. She could only know when she had achieved that particular goal because she had a concrete model to compare herself against.
Gladwell himself notes that he began his writing career by emulating the style of William F. Buckley. It was only after understanding and mastering that style could he move onward and upward as a writer.
Without definitive models, Deliberate Practice is more difficult, although it can still work. In Bob Fisher's case, he was setting world records so he had to go beyond prior models of success. Further, Fisher's activity is largely mechanical, as it involves perfecting a motion and repeating it. Nonetheless, this may be an exception that proves the rule -- most people would consider high proficiency to be a success even if there are no world records broken.
Now finishing with a look through the Fractal Lens, we can see there is some truth to both the 10KHR and the Deliberate Practice model.
In many endeavors, success is, in fact, the mere by-product of the repetition of acts that have some probability of succeeding. This is the principle behind most sales and marketing pitches. Only a low rate of success is actually expected, but it is the mere repetition of the effort that eventually results in success. Rates of success may also improve over time and with deliberate practice, but it is the repetition is actually the key factor in these circumstances. The most successful junior sales people are usually just the ones who make the most calls.
In the context of his early career, Bill Gates -- whom Gladwell also profiled -- describes this as "rounds of attrition" that require the actor to be fanatical enough to keep coming back for more:
More interesting is the application of the concept of the sigmoid or S-curve, which shows how competencies are typically developed over time. The few devoted readers of this blog may notice the sigmoid curve discussed herein is a mirror image of the Gompertz mortality curve discussed in this post about aging. It also appears in another context at the top of the Prospecting Lens page. In fact, the sigmoid function is a recurrent one in nature and has broad applications.
As discussed in this article in the Harvard Business Review, progress in becoming proficient at a given activity is ordinarily slow to begin with, accelerates greatly at a certain point and then levels off after a time even with more effort expended:
"In complex systems like a business (or a brain), cause and effect may not always be as clear as the relationship between the light switch and the light bulb. There are time-delayed and time-dependent relationships in which huge effort may yield little in the near-term, or in which high output today may be the result of actions taken a long time ago. The S-curve decodes these systems by providing signposts along a path that, while frequently trod, is not always evident."
The curve is depicted in the article in this manner:
This diagram is very illuminating as to what is going on inside the black box of these theories. What it is telling us is that 10KHR or extreme levels of Deliberative Practice may not be necessary, or even desired in ordinary circumstances, given the amount of time and effort that may be involved. For many every-day skills -- say cooking or car repair for instance -- only a reasonable degree of competence may be necessary, not mastery. Not everyone has the desire or interest to put in the hours and training necessary to become a master chef or a master mechanic. Thus, somewhere in the vertical section of the line may all the competence in a particular skill that may be necessary for one's purposes in life.
As observed in this practical application post by Jacob Lund Fisker:
"Almost all undertakings work like a S-curve going from the lower left to the upper right. It is important to embed this curve in your thinking because it includes the ideas of compound growth as well as the law of diminishing returns. Understanding this curve reveals that by sheer scale that setting small goals to get started will not accomplish much. Most likely there will be a few weeks of half hearted effort and the project will be dropped because it did not seem to make any difference anyway. Instead put in a large effort in the beginning and keep going until returns are linear (in the middle). Keep going as long as you see linear growth. When this growth starts tapering off it is time to set different (not larger) goals rather than keep racing for very little returns."
Thus, the sigmoid curve breaks down the "black box" or magical nature out of the 10KHR and Deliberate Practice and provides some useful guideposts as to what may be more desirable most of the time.
The Fractal Lens shows us that 10KHR is not wrong for core competencies -- and it probably is not even necessary to achieve some of our goals. It also pokes a big hole in the insidious embedded assumption in these theories that the only meaningful choices are incompetence or expert status.
In fact, the takeaway here is that what we ought to be striving for in many endeavors is simply Deliberate Competence -- to become "good enough" to produce useful results. And that level of effort and practice is eminently doable for many skills.
Because as the tongue-in-cheek philosopher Napoleon Dynamite reminds us, "girls only want boyfriends who have great skills":
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.