Not Necessarily 10,000 Hours

Since the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice to master a discipline/skill has started to become something of an article of faith. However, two posts on the Science of Sport blog argue that inborn talent and opportunity count for a lot more than practice and therefore, 10,000 hours is not necessary for mastery. For some people, even twice that will not result in mastery.

Now probably none of this is news to music instructors and others who are engaged to provide lessons to children who just don’t have the talent to master the subject matter despite the insistence of their parents. People who would never suggest that they could play on a college or professional football team if they only practiced long enough seem to believe that hard work is all that is needed for high achievement in the intellectual or artistic realms.

Most of the authors, Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas’, discussion of genetics can be found in the second post. In the first post they directly refute what they say are unwarranted claims in Gladwell’s book.

Unfortunately, Ericsson didn’t show us this data, so we can only speculate. But that didn’t stop Malcolm Gladwell from making this statement in his book “Outliers”:

“The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals”, musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.

Nor could they find any “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.” – Outliers, pg 39

Again, I don’t know how he arrives at the above statements – Ericsson presented not a single measure to support these claims (and I happen to know that he didn’t interview him either). As we’ll see shortly, it is actually inconceivable that Gladwell’s statements are true – other study of skilled performance show massive variations, and the same will be true for violinists, of this I’m certain.

They then cite some studies measuring to what degree practicing factors into performance at a masterful level.

So, the average time taken is 11,053 hours. That’s pretty much in agreement with Ericsson’s violin players. So far so good. But look at that Standard Deviation – 5,538 hours, and it gives a co-efficient of variation of 50%. For those not into the statistics, what this basically shows is a “spread” of the values around the average. If the Standard Deviation is small, and the CV is low, then you have a tight cluster – all the individuals are close to the average. But when it’s 50%, then you know you have massive differences within that group.

And that’s what happens when you start looking at individuals – one player reaches master level on 3,000 hours, another takes almost 24,000 hours, and some are still practicing but not succeeding. That’s a 21,000 hour difference, which is two entire practice lifetimes according to the model of practice. It seems pretty clear that practice, while important, is not sufficient for some. And for others, it’s not even necessary.

They also looked at studies of elite athletes on the international stage and noted that they rarely needed 10,000 hours to attain that standing. The USA Olympic athletes in wrestling, football and field hockey pursued their sport 6,000, 4,000 and 5,000 hours, respectively. One Australian netball player only had 600 hours of playing before she made the national team. Michael Phelps had only 4 years or approximately 4,000 of practice when he placed 5th in the 2000 Olympics at age 15. Granted, it was another 4 years and a total of 8,000 hours before he dominated at the 2008 Olympics, but as the authors point out, to place 5th in the world after 4 years of serious practice attests to the value of inborn talent.

The authors agree that achieving elite status is attributable to a complex set of factors that include everything from good nutrition to suitably stable political and economic environment combined with opportunities for excellent instruction and guidance. While you can’t depend solely on genetics alone to produce a superstar, in their mind, inborn ability is the most important factor in reaching the highest level of achievement.

This seems to be an important argument to pay attention, partially in regard to the training of artists, but also in garnering an interest and respect for the arts. People hardly need even 1,000 hours of training to find a lot of enjoyment in experiencing and participating in artistic opportunities. But if you extend the implications of what the authors are saying a little, the idea that people will come to love the arts after being exposed or involved starts to become uncertain. There will be some people who will, as we all hope, get it and be inspired from the first exposure. Some people will simply never ever appreciate it and some will need a lot of repeated exposure before they start to.

You might think that this is all pretty self-evident already and didn’t need pointing out. However, if Ross and Dugas are correct, whether people come to appreciate the arts will depend on their innate capacity to do so combined with the opportunity to have quality experiences rather than just be a factor of straight exposures. This realization begins to complicate the approach to audience development in communities. But it also shows that the effort faces the same circumstances as any educational or training endeavor and can employ some of the same techniques.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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