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.”