On 10,000 Hours

This week I finished an administrative placement with a university-based sport, exercise science, and active living research institute. The institute’s director asked me what I got most out of the placement. The experience deepened my understanding of K. Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice.

In 1993, Ericsson developed an influential framework to understand how expert performers acquire their skills (PDF). Deliberate practice involved focused and mindful self-work; regular coaching and feedback; error-correction and experimentation; and understanding of a specific domain. Ericsson’s original study had two further aspects: (1) a literature review of previous studies; and (2) a case study involving 10 musicians. Improved performance involved flow states; plateau experiences; and the self-overcoming of resource, effort and motivational constraints.

Then Malcolm Gladwell discovered Ericsson’s work.

Gladwell cited Ericsson’s research in his book Outliers (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2008). Ericsson had noted several earlier studies that mentioned 10,000 hours to develop world-class expertise in music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. The 10-year rule came from a 1973 American Scientist article by Herbert Simon and William Chase about chess prodigies. Gladwell turned this insight into a sound-bite: the 10,000 hours rule. For instance, The Beatles became incredible performers by playing in Hamburg, Germany, before their career took off.

Several other popular authors also cited Ericsson’s work: Geoff Colvin (Talent Is Overrated) and Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code). They focused on different aspects – Colvin highlighted the complex interaction of genes and the environment, for example. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule became a popular heuristic and a media-savvy meme. It now overshadowed Ericsson’s original research. Ericsson would later tell author David Epstein that Gladwell had “misconstrued his work.”

Discovery Channel’s Faux Documentaries

Discovery Communications (NASDAQ: DISCA) has unearthed a new revenue stream: faux documentaries on pseudo-scientific and occulture topics. Slate‘s Chris Kirk observes:


These faux documentaries, which can best be described as anti-educational, seem to have grown more common on in recent years. The Disney-owned History channel, for example, has earned criticism for airing pseudoscience programs like Ancient AliensUFO Files, and the Nostradamus Effect instead of programs about, you know, history.


I originally wrote about this for the alternative news site Disinformation when Fox broadcast its Lunargate documentary in 1999. I was skeptical: the main reason for Fox’s decision appeared to be the combination of cost-effective content, a large audience, ratings, and profitable licensing markets. At the time, Disinformation’s founder Richard Metzger was shooting the Disinfo Nation television series for Channel 4 which would later be pitched to the SyFy Network in the United States. The series led to a DVD and book, and to straight-to-DVD and streaming video releases. There’s a long history of these documentaries: Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels created the genre with The Morning of the Magicians, and I recall Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World book and television series from the 1980s.


Today, I treat such work as an information and sociological model of rumours, and psychological receptiveness to fringe ideas.