What It Takes to be Great (Hint: It’s Not Just 10,000 Hours)

Do you want to be really good at something? I mean REALLY good?
Perhaps you’ve heard of the research popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outliers.” Mr. Gladwell estimates that it takes about 10,000 hours, more or less to become an expert in a given field.
While this may be a handy rule-of-thumb (much like the BMI – body mass index is for healthy weight), the situation is more complex.

Deliberate Practice

The first point to add is that 10,000 hours of doing something won’t make you an expert. The 10,000 hours must be “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is where you set measurable goals or key performance indicators. You work towards these goals. You track your progress. When you reach them, you set new ones.
Think of it this way. You can (and many people have) jogged for 10,000 hours or more. Most are no closer to being world-class runners than when they started. This is because they are just going through the motions rather than engaging in deliberate practice.
This is fine for joggers who want to maintain physical fitness and have no desire to become world-class runners. But if you want to develop true expertise, you can’t just mess around for 10,000 hours. It takes deliberate practice. Whether it’s music, sports, math, or whatever.
So, if you want to be really great at something, be deliberate about your practice.
  • Set stretch goals.
  • Measure your progress.
  • Work toward your goals.
  • Set new goals when you meet your current goals.


But wait, there’s more.

Directed Practice

By definition, you cannot see your own blind spots. If you really want to reach the top of your game, whether it’s business, sports, music, or something else, you need to involve someone else. At least occasionally, you need a coach of some type to direct your practice. You need fresh, expert eyes that look at things differently than you do so that you don’t keep practicing incorrectly.
If you want to achieve excellence, find a coach, a mentor, even a friend, who is willing and able to give you constructive feedback. It doesn’t have to be often. I grew up snow skiing. I was a reasonably advanced skier (yes, black diamonds, even if I didn’t always handle them gracefully). But an occasional lesson or pointers from a friend often allowed me progress I might never have attained on my own.

Sort of…

There has been some blowback against the 10,000 hour rule on several fronts. The authors of the study on which Gladwell based the 10,000 hour rule have expressed concern that Gladwell’s rule-of-thumb is an oversimplification.
A recent study further nuances the findings by differentiating between fields that are stable and fields that are not. In fields like tennis, chess, or classical music, the rules never change. So a great deal of deliberate practice with some expert direction really can lead to expertise. But other fields, such as entrepreneurship or art, continue to evolve so the 10,000 hour rule doesn’t appear to apply as strongly.
Thomas Edison said, “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” Based on another book, it turns out that “grit” might be the best predictor of success. Talent and resources can move the starting line in the race for excellence, but long hard work doing something you are passionate about is the best way to succeed. “Grit,” by Angela Duckworth, is a great book. I’ll tell you about it in another blog post…
What do you want to be great at?

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