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The 10,000-Hour Rule for expertise popularized by Malcolm Gladwell is a funny case of citation telephone. Basically, the rule claims that anyone can become an expert if they spend ten thousand hours practicing. In other words, ten thousand hours of practice is necessary and sufficient to become an expert. It’s attributed to research by Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who pioneered the study of deliberate practice. 

An interpretation which Ericsson published a three-page paper refuting. (You can read the whole thing here.)

The best violinists averaged ten thousand hours of practice, compared to their less accomplished counterparts who “only” averaged five thousand. (Keep in mind that Ericsson studies expert performance – he wants to know what makes people excel, so he’s not studying average populations.) 

According to Ericsson, Gladwell claimed that 10,000 hours was the “magic number for true expertise” based on Ericsson’s work. This misrepresentation won popular appeal and spread. In internet mythos, the average is now misrepresented as a threshold after which people magically become experts. (I pity the poor stats professors weeping into their pillow at people abusing averages.) 

This is another example of why you should take pop sci stuff with a grain of salt. The 10,000-Hour Rule was coined and popularized based on a game of citation telephone tracing back to a misunderstanding of a statistic. The guy it’s attributed to denies that he ever said or intended to convey that message. That should be enough to warrant a dollop of skepticism for the next bright claim to come along. 

Still, if the 10,000-Hour Rule is an urban myth, is there still anything to learn here? I think so. 

1. 

Becoming world class takes a heck of a lot of time. Ten thousand hours is twenty hours of practice a week for ten years. That’s how much the best violinists averaged by the time they were twenty, and it’s not like they stopped there. They probably continued that rate of practice during their actual career. In another example, winners of international piano competitions had around twenty-five thousand hours of practice under their belts.

Even assuming significant heterogeneity, it will probably take a lot of time to compete at the highest levels in a standardized field such as sports or music. If you can find niches where the competition doesn’t practice as much, you might be able to stand out with much less effort. For example, Ericsson found that students reached world class levels for memorizing long strings of numbers after only five hundred to a thousand hours of practice.

Either way, you should probably expect to measure your success across years. I’ve only spent about four hundred hours blogging, so I shouldn’t be surprised that I have oodles of room for improvement left. So don’t be disheartened if you only see tiny motes of progress on the scale of weeks. 

2.

Raw time also isn’t sufficient. You also need to use that time effectively, which Ericsson claims is best done via deliberate practice. As someone who half-heartedly practiced piano for two years to appease my mother, I can attest that just putting in hours does not promise results. Deliberate practice tries to maximize learning per effort invested.

Importantly, deliberate practice commonly involves learning new and better methods, rather than repeating what you already know how to do. For example, one study subject started out able to remember a string of seven numbers. By learning better memorization techniques he got that number up to 18, more than doubling his original length. But then he struggled to continue learning. He had to learn even more memorization methods before he could break that plateau – and remember up to 79 numbers! 

Deliberate practice is a slippery term, but tends to be characterized by:

  • Focused practice on a specific subskill within the larger skill you want to improve. E.g., Ben Franklin improved his writing by transforming essays into poems to expand his vocabulary.
  • Feeling pushed near the edge of your capabilities. You usually need to think hard about how to improve, learn challenging new material, or carefully practice something outside your comfort zone. E.g., practicing a tricky piano fingering until you can do it fluidly.
  • Clear, rapid feedback on how well you did and what you need to improve. This can be self-directed, but ideally comes from a 1:1 instructor. E.g., an experienced cook telling a beginner cook what spices their dish is missing.

I suspect that both the expert instruction and intense focus benefit deliberate practice by helping you see ways to improve that would have slipped by unnoticed otherwise. Note, deliberate practice isn’t just about finding new methods – you also need to deliberately practice those methods until they become routine and your whole process works better. 

Similarly, by focusing on one small skill at a time, you can give it the attention needed to find and practice ways to improve that piece of the overall skill. For example, I’m experimenting with Obsidian right now, because, for some people, a great note taking system acts as external working memory and brings new insights to their writing. If it works out, I might see a sudden jump in writing quality. Whereas I expect that just writing more will have a gradually diminishing learning curve. (Unless, of course, I learn new methods for writing.)

3.

In his paper, Ericsson addresses an interesting debate. Basically, some critics accused him of denying that genetics had any effect on success. Ericsson responds that he never argued genetics play no role, just that you can improve a lot with practice, particularly if you begin as a child. 

What’s surprising here is how strong a claim Ericsson is still making. He believes you can change virtually every aspect of the human body and nervous system (except height and body size) with sustained intense training. 

I actually had the chance to talk with Ericsson and some other positive psychology researchers about this topic a few years ago. The message I walked away with was that no one there denied that a ceiling probably exists on how good a particular person can become at something. They all accepted this was true. 

It just didn’t matter.

They didn’t care about ceiling effects because it was like someone complaining that they could never beat Michal Phelps, so they never learned to swim. Sure, there is a ceiling there that they probably can’t beat. But they are so far from that ceiling that it just seems silly to care. If instead they focused on what they could do, they could probably become a pretty good swimmer.

Ericsson also writes about multiple domains where there seemed to exist a learning plateau, and then the person overcame it by learning new methods. E.g. people learning Morse code seemed to hit a limit, but better teaching methods were able to help them overcome it. 

From that perspective, even the experience of feeling like you’ve hit a ceiling is suspect. A better teacher or new method could unblock even an already skilled person from improving. 

Within effective altruism specifically, the ceiling people seem to worry the most about is intelligence. 

I speculate that this is a backlash against IQ deniers. The internet spits out articles about how IQ is a myth and anyone can succeed if they just try. This causes people like Scott Alexander to write a bunch of articles defending IQ. Effective altruists see all this evidence -- and care about believing true things-- so this is really convincing. (It probably doesn’t hurt that our monkey brains also notice these beliefs signal ingroup solidarity…) 

This has the unfortunate side effect of pushing some effective altruists toward worrying that they aren’t smart enough. Then they obsess over a fixed trait and scramble for nootropics. (The resulting depression and anxiety also aren’t helpful.) 

Which is rather strange. Scott has the excellent analogy that we’d look at someone funny if they said height didn’t matter one bit for becoming a professional basketball player or if they said that practice didn’t matter one bit for the tall person becoming a professional basketball player. Similar, intelligence has a fixed genetic component and your experience of intelligence is malleable in response to effort. 

I’m particularly interested in the experience of plateaus that we attribute to limited intelligence. For example, when I asked Scott Alexander about his writing process a while back, he said that he composes the post in his head until writing is “a little harder than just transcribing the way I imagine it, but not *much* harder” (at least for short posts – like the length of this post). 

I can’t do that. I frequently find that I can’t hold more than a couple paragraphs worth of an essay in mind at once. After that, they slip away and I lose the chain of thought. 

Should I toss up my hands and despair of ever being a good writer? Well, if blogging is only worthwhile if my blog will be described as a “national treasure,” then it’s worth thinking about what this means for how much effort and time it would take to get to that level. .

If, however, I just care about being able to build out useful thoughts? Then this probably doesn’t I say much, because the amount I can hold in mind at one time is a constraint on working memory. Fortunately, writing things down is itself a way around this problem. I can write down multiple threads of thought and address each one in turn. Writing is effectively a method for expanding working memory. 

I expect many other cases that feel like limits in intelligence may actually be plateaus in working memory or processing speed or learning techniques. What do we actually experience that hints at lower intelligence? Slower learning? Less creative problem solving? Worse grades? Less work output? 

These experiences are probably related to intelligence, but you will see an improvement in your learning speed and grades if you improve your note taking or learn better study techniques. That points to deliberate practice playing a role even in areas that we might traditionally attribute to intelligence. 

And yes, there are some instances where it probably does matter if you’re in the top .01% of the population. If you need to succeed at that level for it to be worthwhile, it’s worth testing if you are likely to meet that threshold. 

But in general, if you want to improve and are willing to invest effort finding the best methods to do so, you probably can. 

Special thanks to Nora Ammann for her feedback.

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26 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:14 PM
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The 10,000-Hour Rule [...] popularized by Malcolm Gladwell [says that] ten thousand hours of practice is necessary and sufficient to become an expert.

Not having read the book, and from a cursory google search, I was unable to find a clear argument that Gladwell actually makes the claim about practice being sufficient. I did find his own statement that this is not a claim he made in the book. (My impression is that the book was criminally ambiguous and neither affirms nor denies the claim despite discussing related things at length.)

That seems likely. I'm not calling Gladwell out - I also haven't read the book, and there's probably a pretty defensible motte there. However, it seems likely that he laid the foundation for the popular internet version by overstating the evidence for it, e.g. this quote from the book: “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours." 

And the rule-run-amok-on-the-internet generally assumes necessary and sufficient, e.g. this quote from Ericsson "The popular internet version of the 10 000 h rule suggests that attaining expert performance is all about getting more and more practice and experience in a given domain of activity and then reaching an expert status at 10 000 h."

I have read the book, as well as all of Gladwell's other books, and I think people are definitely too hard on him. Outliers is in many ways an extended exercise in showing that success is largely a function of historical accident (like place and time of birth) and not guaranteed by anything in particular. So his picture seems to be that there's this massive market inefficiency in who reaches elite levels of performance, but that if you look at those individuals, 10,000 hours of practice seems to be very roughly the amount of practice that separates the boys from the men, so to speak.  As you mention, he talks about this in the context of deliberate practise - he mentions, for example, that one of the distinguishing factors of elite-level chess players is a large amount of time spent reading chess books, and being formally instructed, and amount of time spent in tournament play is comparatively a weak predictor. So I don't think anyone is arguing that practice is a sufficient condition for expertise. I don't have strong views about whether these findings are intuitive or not. On the one hand, there is a kind of inspirational rhetoric that says that you can achieve anything with enough grit, but people also despairingly talk about not having a "maths brain", and I don't think people internalise how you have to be massively lucky/advantaged to even be in the running for performance at the highest level.  

Classical piano is an extreme case that illustrates the problem. Almost no one makes a living as a classical pianist, because listening to a non-famous classical pianist just isn't the kind of entertainment that people will pay for. So in today's world, I think spending 10k hours on classical piano is a waste of time even if you have great musical talent, because other areas of music will give you better return on the same talent.

More generally in creative areas, even though they are competitive, you can somewhat control on what axis the competition happens. For example, many popular singers often miss notes, and many artists make a living without being able to draw a realistic human from imagination. Even though it only takes a few hundred hours for almost anyone to sing precisely or draw anatomy well. The reason people don't do it is because they can capture the audience by other means. So while you're spending your 10k hours on some creative pursuit, maybe it's worth spending one hour brainstorming these "other means".

On the other hand, spending say 2k hours on getting really-good-but-not-world-class on the piano may well be time well spent for any serious musician, because being a good pianist is really useful.

Classical piano is an extreme case that illustrates the problem. Almost no one makes a living as a classical pianist, because listening to a non-famous classical pianist just isn't the kind of entertainment that people will pay for.

Yup. I think what you're describing is the superstar effect.

So while you're spending your 10k hours on some creative pursuit, maybe it's worth spending one hour brainstorming these "other means".

Arguably a great example of deliberate practice for finding better methods. 

You also need to use that time effectively, which Ericsson claims is best done via deliberate practice. As someone who half-heartedly practiced piano for two years to appease my mother, I can attest that just putting in hours does not promise results. Deliberate practice tries to maximize learning per effort invested.

There are probably many other examples of this, but for some reason the above just made the following lightbulb go off for me.

It's usually a good idea to start with a concrete example before defining the thing. This is something that seems weirdly difficult to either do or to remember to do.

But instead of giving a concrete example, you gave a negative example. Half-heartedly practicing piano to appease one's mother is not deliberate practice. For some reason negative examples never occur to me as something to use. Here I think it's a great use-case for one, because, at least for me, coming up with positive examples of deliberate practice is a little bit awkward. At least relative to the negative example. I think it's really intuitive that deliberate practice is kinda just the opposite of the sort of half-hearted practice you describe.

In other words, ten thousand hours of practice is necessary and sufficient to become an expert. ...

The best violinists averaged ten thousand hours of practice, compared to their less accomplished counterparts who “only” averaged five thousand.

Well, even if we ignore the average vs. fixed number problem, the second of these sentences implies that this is what people did that succeeded, which is quite different from the claim that doing it would make me succeed?

Basically, the rule claims that anyone can become an expert if they spend ten thousand hours practicing. In other words, ten thousand hours of practice is necessary and sufficient to become an expert.

When you think about it, that idea is incredibly silly.

  • If you spend an hour a day cooking, you'll reach 10k hours by age 50, let's say. Is the average 50 year old an expert?
  • They say you spend 80k hours in your career. Are people 1/8th the way into their careers experts?
  • There are a lot of people I encounter who have been playing poker for decades and never progress past the beginner stage.

I also expect that Scott has learned better ways to chunk paragraphs such that it takes less working memory to remember them.

Clear, rapid feedback on how well you did and what you need to improve. This can be self-directed, but ideally comes from a 1:1 instructor. E.g., an experienced cook telling a beginner cook what spices their dish is missing.

I don't know that much about cooking but it would surprise me if good cooking feedback would look like that as it's about the outcome and not about the process. If anyone considers themselves an expert here, I'm curious what they think.

I'm just a slightly advanced beginner, but you can make the food less tasty by simply adding the spice too early (even if it's the right kind and right amount). Depends on spice. For example, I usually add garlic at the moment I finish cooking, because after short time (depending on whether it is whole or cut) it loses the spicy taste. In this case, the expert tasting the result and saying "you need more garlic" would get it wrong.

Also, it puts the bar for the "experienced cook" unnecessarily high. There are people who cook tasty food, and could give you some good advice during cooking, but if you just let them taste the result, they will not be sure what advice to give.

My woefully inexpert guess is that advanced cooking should be thought of as optimization in a space of high dimension, where gradient descent will often zig-zag, making simple experiments inefficient. Then apart from knowledge of many landmarks (which is covered by cooking books), high cooking skill would involve ability to reframe recipes to reduce dimensionality, and intuition about how to change a process to make it better or to vary it without making it worse, given fine details of a particular setup and available ingredients. This probably can't be usefully written down at all, but does admit instruction about changes in specific cases.

Reducing dimensionality is the most useful cooking advice I have received. I now use a four factor model: salt, sweet, spice (heat), sour.

  • Is it salty enough? If no, add salt, soy sauce, or fish sauce; or reduce.
  • Is it sweet enough? If no, add sugar, jagery, maple syrup or caramelized onions.

The essentialism is to assign characteristics to ingredients (e.g. Tomatoes are sour.)

I learned this model from some south Indians, this model may be common in that culture. I'm not sure.

Is it salty enough? If no, add salt, soy sauce, or fish sauce; or reduce.

How do you reduce saltiness?

"Reduce" probably means boil off some water to increase the salt concentration of what remains.

Yes, this is what I meant.

How do you reduce saltiness?

"Add a potato (and afterwards throw it away)" is an advice I've heard but didn't test.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat looks related to this concept. But some of the elements are different.

So I put that example because one of the things that felt like a breakthrough in cooking ability for me was seeing a post listing a bunch of world cuisines by spices (I think it was a post by Jeff Kaufman, but I can't find it now). Having a sense of which spices usually contribute to the flavor profile I want made me a better cook than my arbitrary "sniff spice and guess whether that would be good" previous method. 

I think you have two aspects for the first cut: flavoring and cooking -- maybe add visual presentation (which also is affected by cooking). Flavoring seem to be what a number here are talking about -- salt, acid/spiciness, sweetness, bitterness/sharpness. For that I think just study the tongue and taste buds. Cooking is all about controlling the application of heat. 

For the visual it will be balancing color and numbers (odd numbers seem to be more appealing than even numbers it seems), and a bit about shapes/patterns.

I find this to be a severely lacking refutation of Gladwell's point. The main argument being that Ericsson, who collected the data which Gladwell cites to, disagrees with his point. Seeing that the average expert has 10,000 hours of practice in their field a reasonable conclusion is that you should try to practice 10,000 hours if you want to become an expert. Just because Ericsson disagrees with that doesn't mean it's not a perfectly reasonable conclusion.

But Ericsson's research found that one group of expert violinists averaged 10,000 hours. Another group of "expert" violinists averaged 5,000 hours, and other numbers he cites for expertise range from 500 to 25,000. So really, it's generalizing from "you should have 10,000 hours of practice by the time you're 20 if you want an international career as a violinist" to "you should get 10,000 hours of practice if you want to be an expert in anything".... 

Yeah, I think this passes the common sense test as well. It'd be quite suspicious if it took 10,000 hours to get to the top of the field of any discipline, regardless of the relative competitiveness or difficulty of different disciplines.  

On the other hand, I think frontier's point is good as well. If you don't have any data, it's reasonable to use the average as a rule of thumb.  I think the real point of Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule is "It's almost certainly going to take a ton of practice to become an expert at the thing, and you should expect and relish that."

He believes you can change virtually every aspect of the human body and nervous system (except height and body size)

Then it's pretty ironic that people call it growth mindset. :D