What Malcolm Gladwell REALLY Said About The 10,000 Hour Rule

Too many times, people misquote Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule regarding being an expert.

“Malcolm Gladwell said you have to have 10000 hours in a subject to be an expert,” they will often state. The problem is, they’re repeating a misquote from someone else who has never read the book.

The 10,000 hour rule is from Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success (affiliate link), which if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

The problem is, Gladwell never said you needed 10,000 hours to be an expert, you need 10,000 hours to be a phenom. To be so freakishly awesome, to be such a standout among your peers, that sometimes your first name is enough to tell people who you are: Peyton. Tiger. Venus. Kobe. Oprah.

But in the meantime, here’s what Malcolm Gladwell said about the 10,000 hour rule and being an outlier:

“In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers (violinists) had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice.” — p. 38

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. — p. 40

“To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about ten years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fisher got to that elite level in less than that amount of time: it took him nine years.) And what’s ten years? Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” — p. 41

So who is Gladwell talking about? Is he talking about the people who are merely “pretty good” or “very good” in their field? Is he talking about the Carson Palmer’s of the world? (Palmer is the QB for the Oakland Raiders. He’s good, but he’s no Peyton Manning.) Is he talking about the people who know enough about their subject to perform at a master’s level?

No, he’s talking about those surprising success stories who stand head and shoulders above the elite performers in their industry. That one guy who is way better than the 31 other “best quarterbacks in the country.” That one woman who fearsomely dominates all other female tennis players in the world.

“This is a book about outliers, about men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary. Over the course of the chapters ahead, I’m going to introduce you to one kind of outlier after another: to geniuses, business tycoons, rock stars, and software programmers. — p. 17

So, let me reiterate: an expert is someone who has a level of mastery about a special skill or knowledge in a particular field. They are not the freakishly good. The world class. The first-name-only celebrities. Those are the “outliers.” The “experts” are everyone else.

My point is, it doesn’t take 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. It takes less than that. Don’t get me wrong, you have to know a lot about your field. You have to have spent thousands of hours doing it. But that’s not the 10,000 hour rule.

Time to Stop Misapplying the 10,000 Hour Rule

I’ve been thinking about the whole “it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert” thing, and I’ve come to one conclusion:

Most people are getting it wrong.

If you’re quoting it at me, especially in terms of business or technology, you’re taking it out of context.

The 10,000 hour rule comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers (affiliate link). The rule applies to people who have reached extraordinary success in their chosen field, whether it’s football, golf, chess, violin, hockey, computers, etc.

It’s about people who stand out as the best of the best, because they spent 10,000 hours practicing their skills, while the “still pretty damn good” crowd only spent 8,000 hours.

Here’s where people get it wrong: Gladwell did not say that if you want to be good, if you want to be an expert, at something, you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it (which is about 4 hours a day, every day, for almost 7 years).

But people continually misquote the rule (mostly because they haven’t read the book), and then misapply it to the use of tools.

“If you haven’t used these tools for 10,000 hours, then you can’t call yourself an expert,” they say.

That’s what is commonly known in the business world as “a load of crap.”

Tying expertise into time spent using a tool is just plain stupid. If I want an expert carpenter to build a deck for my house, I’m not looking for a guy who has spent 10,000 hours swinging a hammer. I want a guy who has spent 10,000 hours building things.

If a contractor has spent 10,000 hours swinging a hammer, but can’t measure and cut to save his life, then I don’t want him. If he doesn’t know to use treated lumber, or that we need concrete pilings below the frost line, which is 42″ 36″ in Central Indiana, then I don’t want him. If he’s an expert at using a tool, but can’t see the bigger picture, he’s the wrong guy to build my deck. (Update: The frost line is 36″ in Indiana. Thanks to Chris for pointing out the error.)

I’d rather have the guy who has spent a lot of time building things, whether it’s decks, houses, barns, or pergolas. That’s someone who knows how to use the tools he’s got. He’s not an expert at pounding nails, he’s an expert at creating. He knows the material, he knows joinery technique, he knows which fasteners work best. The tools don’t matter — he could use a hammer and a hand saw, or a nail gun and a chop saw — it’s what he builds with them that matters.

The same is true in the business setting. The expert is not someone who has spent 10,000 hours using a particular tool or a piece of software. The expert is someone who knows their subject matter, knows how to use it to their customers’ advantage, and and can properly use the tools to create something great with them.

The expert is the person who can use their skills and knowledge to make a profitable and successful business. They write books. They give talks. They are paid to apply their skills and knowledge. They are not experts because they spent 5 – 10 years using a particular piece of software. They’re experts because they know how to do great things with it, even if they’ve only used it for a year.

It’s time to stop labeling people as experts or non-experts through the misapplication of some misquoted rule meant only to apply to the astonishingly-skilled in a specialized field. It’s time to look at a person’s results and successes, not a time card.

Photo credit: Simpologist (Flickr)