The 10000 hour rule: No Exceptions

11 Jul

Where did the 10000 hour rule come from?

Two prominent researchers in psychology Herbert Simon and Bill Chase noted in their 1973 study that no-one seemed to reach the top ranks of chess without a decade or more of intensive study [1]. Following this observation it was proposed that no-one had achieved world-class expertise without 10 years of intensive practice in any field. Further research (in particular the wide-ranging work of Anders Ericsson, a world-leading authority on expert performance) has since validated this rule (found to equate to roughly 10,000 hours of practice) across numerous fields including tennis, music, mathematics, swimming, running, and it even applies to professional writers, scientists, poets, doctors, and artists [2]. This consistent finding provided strong evidence that even those most strongly touted as naturals were not exempt from ANY of the hard work or persistence required. They were not afforded an easier path to the top, and there were simply NO exceptions to the rule.

This finding adds to the evidence from our last post (Natural Talent: Fact or Fiction), and further weakens one of the key arguments for natural talent: specifically that a talented person can gain expertise more rapidly than others. It places an emphasis firmly on practice as the primary component of great performance, and possibly the only component that really matters.

Anders Ericsson’s important 1993 study titled “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” [3] revealed that the amount of extra-curricular practice specifically (i.e. practice alone or separate to scheduled lessons) was the key difference between good and elite performers. This is where top players get ahead of their peers: The top players tend to stay behind and practice after training, and they voluntarily give up leisure time to do a bit extra. They go beyond the standard sessions that everyone else does. They seem to know that their practice really does count and that extra practice is the key to improving more quickly than others.

There are NO exceptions to the 10000 hour rule.

In a previous blog post “What is Natural Talent?” we talked about the commonly held belief that natural talent plays a large role in achieving great success. This is especially thought to be true of the truly great performers such as Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Bobby Fischer, Mozart, and Michelangelo, because the level of performance attained by these people seems to defy belief. Their abilities appear super-human, and unattainable by an average person, and so natural talent is lurking nearby to take the credit because there is no obvious explanation for such expertise. This stems from the classic nature vs nurture debate, where if something cannot be explained by environmental influences, then it is attributed to nature. However when you examine the childhood and practice history of these master performers, there is indeed an explanation to be found, and they turn out to be shining examples of the 10 year (or 10,000 hour) principle.

Their histories are well documented (as discussed in Matthew Syed’s amazing book “Bounce: How champions are made” [4]) and without exception they all had extraordinary childhoods. Tiger for example watched his father hit ball after ball in their garage before he could walk, was given his first club before he turned 1, and was being coached by a professional at age 4 [5]. Similarly Mozart’s father (himself a famous composer) started him composing and performing intensively at age 3 [6], and Bobby Fischer by age 12 had already joined one of the world’s strongest chess clubs (the Manhattan Chess Club) and was well on his way to becoming the best educated chess theoretician in modern times, with a collection of about 400 books and thousands of magazines and journals on chess [7].

Even with these extraordinary upbringings, they did not produce world-leading performances until many years later. Woods won his first Major at the tender age of 21, but by that time had been in the game for nearly 2 decades. Mozart produced his greatest works only after he’d been composing for two decades [8]. Fischer became more of a world force in his late teens and his greatest performances (including becoming world champion) came in his late 20s [7]. Federer won his first grand slam just before his 22nd birthday. Michaelangelo produced his first great work The Pieta at 24. These examples show that there’s only one way that greats are made: slowly, over many years.

The abilities of the world’s great performers often defy belief. But, when you look closely at their history, it’s their environment, their dedication, and the resulting accumulated practice that defies belief, and in this light their achievements become believable, and actually make complete sense. Michaelangelo said it best: “If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” [9]

What we know about the world’s greatest performers refutes the idea that they were natural talents who were able to learn their professions more quickly or more easily than others. In reality they chalked up more practice hours from a very young age, and in some cases (notably Tiger and Mozart) probably more than anyone before them in history. The lack of exceptions to the rule places the idea of natural talent in serious doubt. If natural talent was as important as people think, surely some exceptionally talented individuals throughout history would have proven exceptions to this rule.

What about tennis prodigies?

A symptom of the 10 year rule is that there are very few who have risen to the top of world sport at an age younger than 16. Tennis has produced notable challengers to this statistic including Jennifer Capriati who had reached the French Open semi-final and reached world #8 before she was 15, and Martina Hingis who won the Australian Open at 16 and 3 months (and won a grand slam doubles title at 15 and 9 months). But once again they had exceptional upbringings, and started playing at 2 and 3 years old respectively, and had STILL already clocked over 10 years of dedicated practice in their sport.

These examples show that given a super-early starting age it’s not impossible to get to a world-class standard before 16, but the attempt to do so involves hard training from a very young age, and produces burnout in more cases than not. This point is reinforced by the large number of child prodigies that disappear and never go on to adult success. The spectacular burnout that derailed Capriati’s career at only 17 years old is an all too common tale. To her credit she mounted a successful comeback in later years, but most do not.

Never was the road to becoming a top tennis player longer than it is today. At present, the average age of women currently in the top 10 is 25 ½  years old, and the highest ranked teenage girl is 19-year-old Bojana Jovanovski, ranked #50. It’s the same story for men, with no-one under 21 currently ranked in the world’s top 100. [Edit: Aussie 18-year-old Bernard Tomic jumped to #71 following his breakthrough QF run at Wimbledon last week!]

What does the 10000 hour rule mean for today’s tennis players?

The bad news:

  • There are no shortcuts for you to get to the top, it’s 10+ years of hard work no matter who you are, and the assumption that certain people have a natural talent that makes the road quicker or easier does not hold true.

The good news:

  • There are no shortcuts for anyone else either. In other words everyone is climbing the same mountain.
  • You CAN develop extraordinary skills (even super-human). Hint: look to the extraordinary childhoods of the great players and athletes, and how they practiced, and use them as your role models.

Next blog post: Limitless: What if your speed and reaction time were unlimited?

In our next post we continue to show you that natural talent isn’t what most people think! We strike at the very core of natural talent by bringing you some amazing research findings which show that your speed, reaction time, and memory are NOT limited by innate (or in-born) abilities.

[1] Simon, H.A. and Chase, W.G. (1973) Skill in Chess. American Scientist, 61, p394-403
[2] Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P.J., and Hoffman, R.R. (Eds) (2006) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge University Press, New York.
[3] Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., Tesch-Romer, C. (1993) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100, No. 3, 363-406.
[4] Syed, M. (2010) Bounce: How champions are made.
[5] Woods, E., McDaniel, P. (1997) Training a Tiger: A Father’s Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life.
[6] Colvin, G. (2008) Talent is Overrated.
[7] Brady, F. (1973) Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer.
[8] Schonberg, H. (1997) The Lives of the Great Composers.
[9] Widely attributed to Michelangelo on the web, original publication of the quote uncertain.

6 Responses to “The 10000 hour rule: No Exceptions”

  1. Waldo Kernen April 15, 2013 at 1:17 am #

    Rhythm and consistency are important, so how you get ready both physically and mentally for the game is essential. Tiger has a practice routine that he does before every single game. He uses the same clubs, and the last club he uses for his pre-game warm-up is the one he plans to use for the first hole.*

  2. Mike July 28, 2013 at 2:28 am #

    Nadia Comaneci: 1976 Olympic all-around gold medalist – age 14. She started gymnastics at age 6.

    Tara Lipinski: 1998 Ladies’ singles Olympic gold medalist – age 15. She started ice skating at age 6.

    Just a couple of examples outside of tennis…

  3. Jack Waterman December 11, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Awesome post, and couldn’t possibly agree more. There is absolutely NO substitute for hard work and deliberate, purposeful practice.

  4. Ben Larcombe December 13, 2013 at 4:49 am #

    Firstly, i just wanted to say that I enjoyed this post, I like the look of your site and I’m a big fan of Matthew Syed’s book. I completely agree that nobody can get to the top without 10 years or 10,000 hours or something very similar. However, I don’t think that ANYONE can do it (if only they practice enough) and I don’t believe that there is NOTHING special about the greats like Federer (and that it was all just practice).

    In my mind the Chinese National Table Tennis Team and talent system is a great illustration. They prove that hours and years of practice will turn people into very good table tennis players just by the sheer number they pump out. But the fact that only a few go on to make it at the very highest level whilst hundreds of others also had the same opportunities and practice just shows that we don’t all respond to training in an identical way.

    I’ve seen this as a table tennis coach. A group of players have started all about the same level and have all done pretty much the same amount of training but some have improved more than others. The input was identical so the output should be identical, but it isn’t! It’s often quite similar (they all improve loads over the course of a year) but some have seen above average improvements whilst others have improved significantly less.

    Sometimes these players work harder to keep up. Sometimes they become disheartened and dropout. This effect is real though and although perhaps we are not in a position to explain it at the moment that doesn’t stop it from occuring.

    On an individual level everyone can improve and keep improving if they keep doing decent practice. When you compare individuals however it becomes apparent that some are seeing more fruit from their efforts than others.

    I don’t know what it is… but it’s not 100% practice.

    Undoubtedly practice is completely essential but I don’t believe it’s enough on it’s own.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Natural Talent: Fact or Fiction | - July 17, 2011

    […] Next blog post: The 10,000 Hour Rule. […]

  2. Limitless: What if your speed and reaction time were unlimited? | - November 19, 2011

    […] Let’s add the following points to our growing case against natural talent (for more see previous posts on natural talent and the 10000 hour rule): […]

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