Why the 10,000 Hour Rule is Both True, and Nonsense at the Same Time

What is the "10,000 Hour Rule?" If you are a reader of leadership literature over the last decade then you almost certainly have come across the proposition that "Talent is Overrated" (Geoff Colvin) and that excellence in just about any field comes down to simply hours of practice as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Here's an excerpt from his famous book Outliers:

“Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. With the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups. In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. In the second group were those judged to be merely ‘good.’ In the third were students who intended to be music teachers in the public school system. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?

Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old. In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, until by the age of twenty they were practicing — that is, purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better — well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.”

The Error: What vs. Why, Correlation vs. Causality. The data looks pretty convincing - the facts are straight "more practice = better performance." But like all correlations attempting to prove causality, there is the risk of unidentified factors - also correlated - that actually drive the results. In this case I think the error is in the question itself (first law of Design Thinking: "are we asking the right question?"). Sure we have the "what leads to great results?" question, and the clear answer is "diligent practice." But I think a better question is "why do great performers practice more than their peers?" And I think the answer to this, potentially more important question, circles back to strengths, talent, and "flow."

What is "Flow" and how is it related to talent? If you have missed the waterfall of books and articles on "Flow" (sorry) just pick up Steven Kotler's book "The Rise of Superman". "Flow" or "The Zone" or "The Peak Performance State" describes those moments of high concentration where time simultaneously stops and speeds up and we deliver our very best performances. Building off Csikszentmihaly's work, Kotler examines the neurobiology of these "altered states" and finds two interesting things: 1) The Flow state is dependent on mastery of the task at hand (native or developed talent) and the Flow state produces the worlds most desired (and addictive) set of chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, endorphis and serotonin.

"For example, when you snort cocaine. All the drug does is cause the brain to release copious amounts of the neurochemical dopamine. Well, dopamine is released in flow. So are norepinephrine (speed), anandamide (marijuana), endorphins (heroin) and serotonin (ecstasy). You actually couldn’t produce this cocktail with drugs. Trying to take all those drugs at once and you’re going to end up drooling or dead. But the brain does it naturally." 

Peak Performers are addicted! Back to our central question, "WHY do great performers practice more than their peers?" I think the answer is clear: they enter into the flow state more than their peers, become more addicted to the results of the activity, and hence they voluntarily practice more than everyone else. (Sometimes the additional practice is driven from an outside force as well: emotionally manipulative parents and coaches can also drive the 10,000 hours - that's a whole other article.) From Csikszentmihaly:

"In many ways, one might say the whole effort of mankind throughout the millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence."

Whoah! The whole effort of mankind??? Possibly confirmation bias on Csikszentmihaly's part, but given the $11 Trillion (Kotler) spent annually in the global economy on legal and illegal ways to produce these chemicals in our bodies, perhaps not as grand a statement as it seems.

Putting it together: top performers practice more than anyone else. Most top performers are driven to practice more than others because they are chasing flow. The chicken or egg question is which came first - the practice or the flow state? There is good evidence that willpower is both limited and fairly evenly distributed - e.g. that the super-disciplined athlete or performer is a myth. Given this fact, I would argue that without some initial "beginner's flow" (or "talent") most individuals will not have the desire nor willpower to pursue the practice necessary to master the 10,000 rule.

In Conclusion: Identifying natural talents or strengths allows for "beginner's flow." The struggle / reward cycle of the flow state, once initiated, leads to practice. Practice leads to mastery which leads to even more flow moments. Talent is NOT over-rated (but it is not enough.) Flow is under-rated. It is time to discover our strengths and talents and spend more time in flow.

This leads me to my favorite question - and conversation starter:

What are you best at???
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