Why the 10,000-Hour Rule is wrong

You’ve probably heard it: in order to attain true success in a given field, you need to spend roughly 10,000 hours practicing in that given field. If you’ve googled it, like I have, you will know that the principle comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book „Outliers: The Story of Success”. This article isn’t about that book as a whole. It’s about the Rule as a meme.

Here’s what I think: the 10,000 hour rule is wrong for the same reason why a million monkeys with keyboards will not definitely produce Shakespeare within a dozen years. Success isn’t something that comes just because it’s about time it did. It’s something much more elusive and interesting than quantity.

We like to think that quantity is enough, sometimes. That given enough quantity, we will eventually have an increase in quality. Hence, 10,000 hours. Or monkeys. Comforting? Yes. It means that if we try enough, we will get it. True?… Not necessarily. I remember that in my early days of googling I wanted to reach a certain story written by a certain person on the internet. And I thought, „My god, how can I ever reach it? There’s a lot of people writing out there writing all sorts of things, who knows how many results I’ll run into!”

I ran into that exact story on the first try. Here’s the quote that can get you to that story: [something that happened] „little more than a week ago, still gave him nightmares, so he spent most of the night watching the stars.” Do you want to know the funny bit? „so he spent most of the night watching the stars.” – this would have been enough. 10 words, not even amazingly special. Unique on google. (well, not unique, but the second result is the same story; and I suppose once this article gets indexed, there will be three results – all concerning the same story)

It’s been a long time since the internet started and pretty much everything is on Google. There’s more than a million English-speaking ‘monkeys with keyboards’ out there, I’ll wager, and yet I can find a given book by putting in approximately 10 words, in the correct succession, within quotation marks. Or make that 20, just in case.

What do the monkeys of randomness have to do with 10,000 hours of work in an area? Well, they prove that quantity doesn’t necessarily produce a certain result. I have unfortunately known people working in the same domain for many, many years who have reached a point where they no longer develop. In some cases, they even go backwards, becoming less competent as they go along. Managers who ‘already know’, artists who are ‘great’… You know the sort.

It’s not just about the number of hours, is it? It’s about affinity, cleverness, having the right people to turn to and hard work. All together.
If you have an affinity for the domain, you’ll make progress faster – I would probably need longer than the average person to become a good artist since my ability with visual things is quite bad (I often don’t recognize people; once I didn’t recognize a high school teacher out of context, especially since she’d cut her hair).
However, if I were to go about it the clever way, counting on my strengths and studying the theory behind reproducing images, as well as teaching myself to recognize angles and proportions and to really see things in terms of lines and shapes, I’d probably do better than if I simply grabbed a pencil and started trying to reproduce things.
If I had good teachers to resort to and to help me with things such as ‘no, no, the shoulder lines go down, not up’, I’d probably progress even faster.
And then there’s hard work.

One route to success in a field is not equal to another. You can take shortcuts in places where comprehending a system will propel you forward. Or you can choose a direction where hard work really is a lot of what you need to do (sports?… learning a new language?… But even there things vary). And you can, of course, go about it the wrong way without realizing it.

So how long does it take to reach success? Well, that depends. More or less time. Depending on the field. And depending on whether you’re just a monkey with a keyboard, stuck pounding with little to no direction.