The 10000 hour rule for measuring effort



For effective self-development, two concepts stand out.  The first is over-preparation as a key to extreme success.  And the second is appropriate quantification for measuring your efforts: since only what can be measured, can be controlled and then improved. 

Once you recognize that over-preparation is necessary for self-development, the next step would be to define an appropriate measure for over-preparation.  Another way to ask the same question is when do you know that you are over-prepared?

Every person has a finite amount of time.  It is not possible to over-prepare in all areas.  Besides, there is a huge opportunity costs in investing all (or most of) your time in one focused area.  So picking the activity or skill-set in which to over-prepare also becomes a strategic decision.

In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success” Malcolm Gladwell provides a magic number – 10,000 hours.  

According to Gladwell, in order to become elite in any field, one must put in 10,000 hours or more.  Talent or intrinsic ability is not a pre-requisite.  But by sheer dint of practice one can become an expert in the chosen field.  After studying the lives of extremely successful people, Gladwell came to this magic number.

To quote Gladwell, ‘“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

In other words, if you can estimate putting in this amount of hours, you can consider yourself over-prepared.

Consider the pyramid shown alongside.   

10000 hour rule

10000 hour rule

Stated quite simply:

–         Effort greater than 10K (10,000) hours = Elite, expert capability

–         Less than 10K but greater than 5K hours = Strong, non-expert capability

–         Less than 5K hours = Mediocre capability

In other words, the amount of effort you put into learning something is directly proportional to your capability and expertise in the subject.

In an excellent article on the elite-ness of US Olympic gymnasts, Victor Cheng points out that from a very young age of 4, these gymnasts put in more than 5 hours a day practicing their skills.  Victor goes one step further and sets the bar at 20,000 hours for becoming an expert at intellectual skills.

In the sections below, I attempt to break-down the 10K number, highlight areas where such mega-effort should be applied and also where it will not work.

Where the 10K rule is most effective?

Any activity that requires repetition, memory-building (whether physical or mental), memorizing and applying concepts is best suited for this rule.

1. Building muscle memory and hand-eye coordination in physical activities such as golf, tennis, baseball or any other sport.  The quote, “the harder I work, the luckier I get” comes to mind.

2. Musical endeavors such as playing the violin, guitar or simply singing.

3. Mastering concepts such as programming and mathematics.

4. Applying frameworks for problem-solving, by tackling different types of problems.

5. Most self-development initiatives including learning a new language are candidates for such an effort.

The image alongside shows where you can apply the skill. 

10k hour rule - where to apply

10k hour rule – where to apply

It is important to look at both circles. 

Firstly, you definitely do not want to put in a lot of hours into something that you do not enjoy, and then be saddled with it for a much longer period.

Secondly, you want to pick a skill-set or talent that is also aligned with your career. 

This way you will earn a living doing what you enjoy and will never have to “work” for a living.

One of my close friends has a 19 year old son, Manoj who has trained over more than 8 years to become a very good dancer.  I suspect Manoj is close to hitting the 10K mark.  He loves dancing so much that he performed last month after hurting his knee in an accident.  He noticed the pain (and his badly swollen knee) the morning after the performance when he could barely move his leg.  For Manoj, the 10K hours will come and go and he won’t even notice.  Dancing has also become a career option for him – he now takes on teaching engagement in addition to performing.   He is well on his way to becoming an elite dancer and the 10K hour rule applies well to his vocation.

Exceptions to the 10K rule

Obviously the 10K rule spans too long a time to be applied to activities of a short-term nature.  The rule applies for a long-term objective related to your career or profession where one wants to become a sought-after subject-matter expert and the best in that league.

Other areas where the 10,000 hour rule will not work are:

1. Entrepreneurial ventures or stock-market successes – where past performance is not a guarantee of future success.  Of course, one can still become an expert in identifying and applying the correct framework for the situation, but success may not be directly proportional to the amount of hours spent.

2. Endeavors where creativity is required, such as art where something special (in addition to voluminous practice) is required. 

As an example, my skills at writing, practiced over a period of time, have definitely improved.  I can write faster, more logically and consistently.  However, creative and gripping content still comes fleetingly and is not a factor of the hours spent practicing.

3. Hobbies, that will not help launch a career.  For example, spending tons of hours playing video games or watching hours of movies would not get you anywhere from a self-development perspective.

4. Non-coachable abilities described in “Nurturing Innate Talent”.   


The math behind the 10K

One way to clock up 10K hours is as follows:

5 hours a day for 5 days a week equals 100 hours a month

This will total 1200 hours a year.

It will take about 8 years and a half to clock 10,000 hours.

This estimate assumes that one has a full time (8 hours a day, 40 hours a week) primary activity such as school, college or your day-job going on.

In such a case, putting in 5 hours every day would take a huge sacrifice.  The 25 hours during the week can also be spread out over the weekend.

For children who start very young, such as the US Olympic gymnasts, it is preferable to select an activity which is also offered in school.  That way, in addition to coaching, there will also be more hours for practice during the day.  The bigger challenge is in selecting the right vocation to pursue.

Other considerations

10,000 hours is a lot of time, and requires multiple years.  So this is something that should be applied to a skill or an activity that is enjoyable and one that the person is passionate about.  You should not become very good at doing something that you do not enjoy! 

As with most long-term assignments, you should put in place some milestones at least initially.  That way, you can assess whether you are moving in the right direction, enjoy doing what you are a practicing for and generally passionate about the activity.  If anything seems amiss, then you should be very logical take hard decisions, even if it means aborting the task and picking up something else.  After all, we are all humans and constantly evolve.  It is better to take a hard decision and move over to another task early on, than to pull on grudgingly with the initial task itself and spend hours and hours doing something you do not enjoy.

Lastly, practice should be in the right direction.  It is very easy to practice the wrong thing and force incorrect habits, which then become very difficult to change.  A coach, guide or mentor is a very good to have.

In conclusion, this post is an attempt to bring this concept to younger leaders who aspire for excellence in their chose areas which they are passionate about.

Book Image: (c)

Info graphics: (c) Kay Leadership Academy