Most of us want to be great at something.

It’s a simple desire but its execution is obscured by complexities.

Some people religiously believe in innate ability over nurtured talent.  Others are more hopeful in self-determination and conclude that people can become great through their own hard work.  I like the idea of the latter, though I cannot dismiss the bits of truth in the former.

A popular pop psychology rule states that it takes 10000 hours of practice to become an expert at something.  This idea was popularized by Gladwell, a journalist who was criticized by Ericsson, a researcher whose work formed the foundation of this over-simplified statement.

To dilute expertise into a set number is trite, though appealing as it defines greatness for those who still yearn for it.  I doubt any serious performer would believe in this number.  They’d likely hone their craft, regardless of timeframes, by continually improving it in particular, deliberate ways.  Ericsson promotes this concept of ‘deliberate’ practice, emphasizing that it is not only the quantity of time put into practice, but also its quality.  This quality practice will look different depending on the discipline, but to know that a minimum of 10000 hours of practice isn’t required is uplifting to those who find big numbers daunting in anything but paychecks.

Nurturing talent is a good use of time, but is this too limited by nature?  Gladwell is more apt to say that some people will have natural, in-born talent that makes them great without nurture, but greater with it.  This is most clearly demonstrated in athletic disciplines where one’s body needs to harbour peak or unique strengths.  There are genetic advantages linking top Olympic runners to certain ethnic groups.  Racial politics aside, the biology of talent may very well be a valid field to explore.  This may reveal limits to natural growth.  Natural growth, however, isn’t the only kind of growth.

Performance-enhancing devices or drugs can mimic the traits once confined to the genetic domain.  These pose serious ethical threats. Of course, in the world of sports, for example, doping is not rare, which makes you wonder why the compulsion is so common.   Though the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) to-do list sometimes includes a crackdown on doping, the culture encouraging doping is not actively analyzed.  The technologies surrounding enhancement are also not well-defined.  The pace of technology growth outstrips that of legislation, making it difficult to assess what doping is and what it is not.*

Whether you use your natural talent, nurture that talent or enhance it somehow, the practice of practice remains.   People must practice their skills in order to use them.  Rote repetition may not be favoured among the easily-bored, but can be a crucial step in building newer, more complex skills.  This is an idea put forth by a team of researchers who showed that students were able to solve more advanced mathematical problems after going through a period of repeated mathematical equations.   This rote practice should be coupled with deliberate, new practice to maximize performance.

As for the 10000 hour rule, I’m not convinced.  I’m not convinced because it’s not helpful.  It’s also not very practical.

Tracking all that time warrants its own 10000 hour rule.

*One definition of doping states that it is “the deliberate or inadvertent use by an athlete of a substance or method banned by the IOC,” which could be anything



3 thoughts on “how to be great in 10000 hours or less

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