If you’re talented, 5000 hours is enough (and if you’re not, even 10000 won’t cut it)

Dilbert - 10000 hoursMalcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10000 hours of practice are necessary to attain mastery in a range of skill-based pursuits (for example, chess, programming, basketball, journalism).

As a writer, one of Gladwell’s responsibilities is to turn nuanced concepts into simple messages. “10000 hours” is the perfect example. Its popularity has helped make Gladwell a household name and a “public intellectual”, one of those hand-wavy terms for well-known writers who weigh in on public-interest topics, but aren’t academics or politicians.

Of course, the devil is in the research details and after reading Practice Isn’t Everything, another great Wilson Quarterly article, I was compelled to share another perspective.

In 3 sentences:

Critics have lambasted the theory. What about the hard-working strivers who fall short, and the prodigiously talented people who practice less but shine anyway? Now the doubters have data to back them up.

In 5 bullets:

  • Researchers analyzed data from 14 studies of chess players and musicians
  • Among musicians, the best pianists had all practiced at least 10000 hours (supporting Gladwell and the original researchers), but some had required more than 30000 hours to get there. Whew
  • 25% of chess players achieved “mastery” in 7500 hours; 20% achieved mastery in less than 5000 hours
  • The number of hours spent practicing only accounted for 34% of the variation in chess player skill levels
  • What explains the remaining 66%? Starting age (younger is better), working-memory capacity (larger is better), and grit (more is better), among others

Here’s the full research paper. I’ve yet to read it closely.

It’s an understatement to say this is a complicated topic, but one that highly interests me. If you haven’t already done so, check out my 1-page cheatsheet of Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, which also discusses how people become the best in the world at a particular skill.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.