Time to (mostly) retire mansplainers’ fave pseudo-scientific theory.
Just shy of a decade ago, there was a certain type of cocktail party at which you couldn’t throw a copy of a Malcom Gladwell book without hitting someone, passionately advocating for the “10,000-hour rule.”
The concept, derived from the work of psychologist K. Andrew Ericsson, asserts that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” a.k.a. psychology-speak for practice that fosters growth of your skillset as much as possible—is one of the determining factors of exceptional success.
Citing examples like Bill Gates and The Beatles, both of whom put in a boatload of intense “practice” in the early phases of their careers, Gladwell featured the concept as the “magic number of greatness” in his massively popular pop-psych book and beloved tool of mansplainers, Outliers.
He hasn’t been able to live it down since. Gladwell initially made the claim that it’s “an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields,” and while it’s only fair to note that the public has oversimplified Gladwell’s oversimplification, his rebuttals haven’t necessarily jived with responses from additional studies.
For instance, in an Ask Me Anything on Reddit in 2014, he did a bit of backpedaling:
“There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn’t apply to sports. And practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.”
But actually, even that qualification doesn’t hold much water; one of the more notable counterpoints argues that sports is one of the domains in which deliberate practice is most effective: A 2014 Princeton study culled data from 88 studies on deliberate practice and found that its ability to have a significant impact varied wildly across fields.
It functioned best in set structures, with deliberate practice explaining 26 percent of the variance in games; 21 percent in music; and 18 percent in sports.
Where limitations are more boundless, deliberate practice was a determining factor significantly less, exhibiting only a 4 percent variance in education and 1 percent in professions (the categories into which Bill Gates would fall).
Of course, it’s not difficult to understand whysuch a tidy idea could wedge itself so firmly into our collective consciousness; it smells like science, and yet it’s broad enough to superimpose onto any of our wildest dreams and program accordingly into our Google calendars.
That Gladwell has more or less reduced his theory to the underwhelming revelation—that even if you’re gifted with certain natural abilities, you’ll still need to put time in to make yourself better—is all the more reason to roll your eyes next time some dude comes at you with, “You know what would really help your career? 10,000 hours of practice.”
To be sure, some form of practice and putting one’s nose to the proverbial grindstone is essential. But there’s no need to exhaust yourself striving for a somewhat arbitrary goal that leaves out many of the sundry factors that define what exceptional success really looks like—not in the least because it looks different for everyone.