Malcolm Gladwell Was Wrong;
10,000 Hours of Experience Won’t Make You Great at Anything!

Everyone knows that if you do something for 10,000 hours, you will develop expertise in that area. Well-regarded, Best-Selling author Malcolm Gladwell sighted this metric in his 2008 book – Outliers:

He wrote, “In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” Another quote references a research study conducted on world-class violinists, “Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.”  He later adds, “And without ten thousand hours under his (her) belt, there is no way he (she) can ever master the skills necessary to play at the top level. [1]

Shortly after Outliers was published, people all over the world became obsessed with “Gladwell’s” 10,000-hour rule.  If you want your kid to be a doctor, you better get them started now so they can hit their 10,000 hours before Med school.  Oh, you want your kid to be a pro basketball player?  Get them to start shooting hoops before they turn five so they can hit 10,000 hours before college. And on and on….

I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan; I read his books and listen to his podcasts.  As much as I respect and appreciate Gladwell, he failed to express the complete picture of the research gathered by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. (The primary source of the research that Gladwell referenced in the 10,000-hour section of Outliers). He attempts to compress their 43-page research study into approximately four paragraphs.  The point that Gladwell is trying to make in this segment of Outliers is that innate talent alone (they were born that way) doesn’t predict excellence within a specific domain/skill area.  He wants us to know that the very best doctors, computer programmers, basketball players, etc, need to invest a significant amount of time to achieve greatness.  Anders Ericsson agrees with this point of view.

Anders Ericsson also feels that Gladwell did not explain the rest of the story (Gladwell never actually spoke to Ericsson or the other members of the research team before Outliers was published).

Here is where Gladwell is wrong; while reaching the 10,000-hour mark is important, it is only part of the equation to achieving domain expertise.  Ericsson, et al. believe that the only way to reach peak performance is via “Deliberate Practice” (Deliberate Practice is not mentioned in Outliers). The additional elements of Deliberate Practice that I’ll touch upon in this article are:

• Continuous (during the 10,000-hours) coaching interactions
• Self-Motivation

Continuous coaching conversations are a critical part of the journey
to domain expertise.

To become a domain expert, a learner needs gifted/committed coaches.

Ericcson et al. state [2]:

The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance.

In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Hence mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance (Trowbridge & Cason, 1932). …, studies show that providing a motivated individual with repeated exposure to a task does not ensure that the highest levels of performance will be attained.

Anders Ericcson was interviewed for a podcast on May 5, 2020 [3]

During that podcast, he had this to say about the importance of having a teacher/coach:

It comes down to “individual instruction between a teacher assessing an individual student as to what would be the next step to develop and improve, and then having that student go away with training advice and techniques to improve, and then coming back to the teacher.”

“It’s not just getting EXPERIENCE, but there are ways in which you can actually design training that will improve people substantially.”

Ericcson makes the point that experience alone does not equal expertise.

This point reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

“Experience is making the same mistake over and over again, only with greater confidence.”

Let me describe my golf game, to make this point even more transparent.

I grew up about a six iron away from a public golf course.  My Dad loved golf, so he taught me, and my two brothers the game. I can say that I have passed the 10,000-hour mark in the domain of golf. I am an experienced golfer.  Unfortunately, I am still NOT an expert golfer.  I have good days and bad days, good shots and bad shots.  I have lots of EXPERIENCE but very little expertise.  I 100% make the same mistakes repeatedly, even though I received expert coaching (periodically, not continuously).

I really enjoyed golf as a kid, and I still do today, but maybe I didn’t have the self-motivation to become excellent?

This brings me to the next point that Gladwell missed:

To achieve Expertise within a specific domain, one needs to be self-motivated to learn and get better.

From Ericcson’s 1993 research paper [2],

A number of conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance have been uncovered (Bower & Hilgard, 1981; Gagne, 1970). The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.

From the Ericcson Podcast [3]:

“If you have someone who is MOTIVATED and sees that in their future that they would like to continue to do IT (be great at Golf, Violin, Cooking), they are able to show progress.”

“The ones who feel that they HAVE to do it (Golf, Violin, Cooking), they will struggle to make progress.”

Back to my golf game.  When I was young, I loved walking up to the course to practice various shots.  I also enjoyed playing rounds with my family and my friends.

But do you know what I liked more?  Football.  As I got older, I became more self-motivated to play football (maybe growing up in Pittsburgh in the ‘70s influenced this?).  My Dad would try to get me to golf more, to practice more, but I was not interested.  Football, now that was something that I could work on forever! I would run, work on drills, go to football camps, watch hours and hours of football games.  I was obsessed with football, and I was highly self-motivated to get better in that specific domain.  My intrinsic motivation to get better at football was higher than the extrinsic motivation to get better at golf that came from my family.

As Ericcson and his colleagues put all their work together, they realized they had captured information that could dramatically impact learning.

For Optimized Performance, a learner would need to engage in what they would describe as Deliberate Practice.

Deliberate Practice includes three aspects: motivation to improve, allocating time toward your specific interest, and one-on-one coaching.

Explained here in their 1993 research [2]:

Throughout development toward expert performance, the teachers and coaches instruct the individuals to engage in practice activities that maximize improvement. …the teacher designs practice activities that the individual can engage in between meetings with the teacher. We call these practice activities Deliberate Practice.

Their concept was never about simply accumulating 10,000 hours.  It was, if you want to achieve Expert Performance, you need to invest in Deliberate Practice.  Not solely self-directed practice, not 10,000 hours of experience, but following a process in which a learner:

  1. Is self-motivated to improve at a task
  2. Receives guidance from a coach
  3. Allocates time to work on a specific area
  4. Returns to their coach to receive additional guidance/encouragement
  5. Repeat steps A, B, C, D for a significant amount of time

Reaching the 10,000-hour milestone is clear, simple, and measurable; maybe that’s why we like it.  But the fact remains that gathering 10,000 hours of experience doesn’t guarantee optimal performance. The data/research by Ericcson, and other performance experts, clearly states that the “gold standard” of achieving domain mastery is Deliberate Practice.

Contact LIFT Consulting to learn more!

We are experts at bringing Deliberate Practice to the modern workforce.  We re-ignite self-motivation, by providing coaching that is focused on critical skill areas and processes.  Our area of domain mastery is Sales Optimization.

“LIFT has cracked the code with its SalesFilm process.  Most salespeople don’t need more sales training, they need expert coaching on how to navigate REAL interactions with their prospects/customers.  LIFT understands our world & our sales process, so when they provide coaching, it has immediate and lasting impact!”

Bruce Caldwell
National Sales Director – Architecture & Engineering



[1] Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell – 2008

[2] The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance – 1993 – American Psychological Assn.

[3] EDSurge Podcast, Jeffery Young, May 5, 2020

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