Examining the ‘10,000 Hour’ Rule

Sean McCormick
4 min readFeb 18, 2020

It’s been over a decade since Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, mic-dropped the 10,000 Hour Rule into countless conversations about self-improvement and future greatness. Throughout these years there has been a lot of misconception, counter-theory and downright physco-bashing of Gladwell’s declaration.

What exactly is the 10,000 Hour Rule? The definition itself seems to vary as much as the opinions on the subject. Many take the rule literally as meaning to become great at something a person must have first practiced the activity for 10,000 hours. Others merely simplify it to ‘practice makes perfect’ — a phrase which has been around for centuries.

Gladwell’s writing expands on the actual originator of the concept, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson has stated Gladwell’s book simplified his research which involved three groups of violinists. Most of the study’s participants began playing violin when they were five-years-old. The musicians were declared elite-level, good, and those deemed good enough to be a public school music teacher. The magical 10,000 hour factor comes from data collected from the practice habits of the elite-level violinists.

Ericsson differentiates between ‘practice’ and ‘deliberate practice.’ Ericsson and his co-authors of a 2007 Harvard Business Review article describe deliberate practice as making “considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well — or even at all.” Instead of the focus being on basics or fundamentals of an activity, “ it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.” At first the idea of of deliberate practice is enough to have the graves of Rockne, Sutherland and Wooden spinning uncontrollably. However, ignoring basics and placing the focus on becoming familiar with parts of an activity which is currently being done poorly — words used in the Harvard Business Review article — really translates into the everyday ‘drills’ mentality of all athletic coaches (and business leaders).

An athlete will go through basic, fundamental drills to create muscle memory before moving on to new drills which will increase sport-specific techniques. Even an elite violinist begins with basic musical warm-up exercises before diving into sheet music which provides more difficulty in playing perfection.

An area of focus for detractors of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is the athletic world. Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, co-authors of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success say their research shows it is the way one practices, and not the amount of hours practiced, which determines a person’s ascension into the expert category. Gladwell actually addressed the rule issue in regard to athletes three years before Peak Performance was published. “It doesn’t apply to sports,” he posted on Reddit. Gladwell went on to say “pratice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success.” He then referred to his playing chess for a century wouldn’t result in becoming a grandmaster. “Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation,” Gladwell concluded.

Gladwell didn’t point to the athletic elephant-in-the-room — the fact superior athletic performers are already ahead of the average Joe as they are naturally gifted. It’s the ‘you can’t teach’ speed, field presence, etc. coaching mantra. A football player clocked at 5.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash as a freshman in high school can hit the weight room to gain lower body muscle gains, and attend an acceleration trainer on a weekly basis, and at best he may end up with a senior 40-time of 4.7 or 4.8. Is he going to dip into the 4.25 range? No, and it’s because there is only so much practice/training/conditioning a person can do. It’s like a hunter replacing a beagle with a pug. Both will jump on the hunter’s lap to cuddle, but only the beagle is going to chase a rabbit.

Does this mean the kid with a slower time in the 40 shouldn’t work on improvement? Certainly not! A synonym for deliberate practice is self-discipline. It’s not just for the elite musician, the chess grandmaster or the NBA’s leading scorer. Developing habits which lead to a person’s success can be transferred from athletics or music and into the entrepreneurial and corporate landscapes. It also lends to the deliberate practice of continual personal growth; something which should never fade away.



Sean McCormick

Turning the ‘complex’ into the ‘understandable!’ In Coaching & Leadership there is one constant — WRITING!