Everyone intuitively understands that to become an expert at something like a sport, a musical instrument, selling, or surgery, it takes a lot of practice.
In fact, since Malcolm Gladwell’s groundbreaking book Outliers was published in 2008, the general consensus is that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to get anywhere near the top of a profession or skilled endeavor.
One of the groups Gladwell studied for his book was musicians. When he compared the proficiency of musicians based on how much they practiced, he noticed: “By the age of 20, the elite performers had each totaled 10,000 hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled 8,000 hours.”
Interestingly, Gladwell’s assertion is often questioned and is thought by some experts to be a gross oversimplification. These experts believe there are too many other factors involved when it comes to success for a set number of hours of practice to be the single determining factor.
Of course, it seems unlikely that a lot of these factors – such as talent – weren’t a given for Gladwell as he was writing the book. For example, when he looked at musicians, he focused on The Beatles; when he looked at the world of technology, he chose Bill Gates.
The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13 and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.
One key component to this formula that often gets overlooked is the quality of the practice. It is critical that practice is well-guided and happens consistently at the right intensity level.
In this blog, we will discuss the importance of practice and how to practice properly to achieve your personal or professional goals; hopefully, in a way that allows you to shave a few thousand hours off the magic number.
The Importance of Practice
While practice may seem like a tedious chore – especially for those who are blessed with an abundance of natural talent – it is an essential aspect of growth. When you repeatedly perform a task, you’ll find where your strengths and weaknesses lie and you’ll become more comfortable with it, making you faster and more efficient.
Practicing allows you to expand your knowledge and dive deeper into something that you already enjoy. This includes experimenting with new ways of approaching the activity which allows you to eliminate things that won’t work while fine-tuning the things that will.
Getting into a routine with your practice is hugely important as it will allow you to develop the discipline to practice even when you are lacking motivation. If you don’t practice consistently, it is unlikely you’ll ever be much better than you are now, or your skills will actually start to stagnate or degenerate.
Difficulty and Intensity
When practicing, it is tempting to only do what is comfortable. When it comes to both difficulty and intensity, you should strive to push and challenge yourself during each practice session.
While daunting, pushing yourself to practice at a higher level than needed for the actual activity is extremely important. If you only work on the parts of your “game” you enjoy working on – such as your strengths – you run the risk of not improving your overall performance in any measurable way. You must challenge yourself and dedicate a suitable amount of time to your weaknesses and other activities that you may not be comfortable doing.
It is also important to practice at the right intensity. This applies to actively focusing and putting energy into the task. By putting your all into every minute of practice, you’ll increase your stamina for the task and develop more quickly than if you just cruise through it at a comfortable level.
That said, you don’t want to kill yourself as over-training or over-practicing can be just as damaging as not practicing at all. While it is critical you push your limits, it is just as important to know your limits and not overdo it. Nobody ever got anywhere by burning themselves out! This is one area where good guidance or coaching is vital.
Obviously, 10,000 hours of practice over the span of 10 years is going to have a bigger impact on your performance than if you spread it out over 30 years. Picking it up and putting it down is not going to be as effective as regularly and repeatedly performing the same tasks. Consistent practice will help you develop more quickly and help your learnings to stick. The more time you spend away from a task, the more you will start to forget, your body will lose its muscle memory, and the task itself may actually become harder to perform.
You don’t have to practice 24/7, nor do you have to practice on a rigid schedule. Practice at the times that work best for you, whether that be after work, in the morning, or during your lunch break. You also don’t have to beat yourself up if you miss a practice session. Just strive to practice as often and as regularly as you can.
When writing Outliers, Gladwell based some of his research on an article co-written by Anders Ericsson from the New York Times in 1993. However, Ericsson makes clear in his research that while practice is important, a good teacher is just as important: “To assure effective learning, subjects ideally should be given explicit instructions about the best method and be supervised by a teacher to allow individualized diagnosis of errors, informative feedback, and remedial part training.”
In a nod to her father and coach Jim, 18-time Grand Slam tennis champion Chris Evert once said that everyone at the upper echelon of sport has high levels of drive, talent, and ambition. She believes it is the quality of their coaching that determines how successful they are.
Mastery cannot be completely self-taught. For you to be able to be truly proficient, you need guidance, and you must find a coach or mentor who understands you and the way you operate. Simply put, you can’t learn what you don’t know to learn.
Just remember, if you don’t find a coach who is a good fit for the first time out of the gate, don’t give up on the concept of coaching. Not all teachers are good teachers and not all worthwhile guidance has to come from a person. Guidance can come from books, blogs, articles, videos, or online classes.
The truth is there are more ways to find the information you need to practice properly today than at any other time in history. The right coach will help identify the sources that you need to use to keep you on target, but the bottom line is this: 10,000 hours is a long time – you’d better get started.