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.

What Does It Take to be a Social Media Expert?

My friend, Hazel Walker, wrote a blog post recently about how “Anyone With a Book Can Call Themselves an Expert,” and we were discussing it over coffee

“Uh, you know my book launch is tonight, right?”

She did know, but said it wasn’t books like mine that she was talking about, it was the self-published kind. “Anyone can self-publish a book, and anyone can regurgitate stuff someone else said. That doesn’t make them an expert,” she said.

Hazel’s gripe was about the proliferation of social media experts who are springing on the scene, armed with a few dozen hours of using the necessary tools, thinking this somehow made them an expert.

My mother, age 72, has decided that she is a social media expert. Heck why not, she uses Facebook, and has for about 6 months, she tells all her friends how to use it, when is the best time of day to use it, why it’s important to use it, and on and on. All things considered she has as much experience as many out there calling themselves an expert.

I agree with Hazel on this. Her mom notwithstanding, there are too many people who are eager to call themselves an expert when they’re not even an enthusiastic amateur. This prompts other people to rant against the faux experts (fauxperts?), which makes the real experts hesitant to adopt that mantle in the first place.

It’s a shame really.

There are some really smart, bright people who have earned the term “social media expert,” but they’ve been scared out of using it because other people are snarky, or just downright brutal, to the “fauxperts.” The real experts don’t want to get caught in the crossfire, so they eschew the title they deserve.

So what does a social media expert have that the non-expert does not have?

    1. More than five years experience in creating effective messages that educate, persuade, or inspire. The more, the better.
    2. More than five years of understanding their target market/audience (social psychology, and how their messages affect that audience.
    3. More than five years spent creating strategies and executing them. Not just executing someone else’s strategy, and doing someone else’s grunt work. You created the strategy, then you executed it.
    4. Has frequent speaking engagements to industry groups about their knowledge and experience.
    5. A lot more knowledge than their customers, including the ones that keep up with social media.
    6. A regular publishing schedule of thoughts, news, and research on a blog that’s older than a year. Even better, a regular publishing schedule of their thoughts, their news, and their research.
    7. A breadth of experiences, responsibilities, and first-hand knowledge from a variety of jobs. They don’t still have the same job they got after college, five years ago.
    8. Enough knowledge about social media message creation and social psychology that can, and hopefully does, fill a book.
    9. Paying clients.

This last point is probably the most important one. Printing out cards at a cheap overnight business card service doesn’t make you an expert. Being hired by your mom’s Pilates friend to create a Twitter account for her dried flower arrangement business doesn’t mean you have clients. You need to make a living at this. It’s not a sideline, and not a hobby. It’s not something you decided to do because you’re having trouble finding a job. It’s not a fallback option because you didn’t get into bartending school.

Also, notice I didn’t mention any specific tools, any scores, analytics, etc. For one thing, numbers can be gamed; value and reach are earned. For another, the real expert doesn’t rely on the tools, they rely on their network. And they would have that network if they were using Twitter, Facebook, or a 7-year-old email newsletter. The tools are constantly changing and evolving, some are dying, while others are growing (anyone remember AOL’s heyday?). So why put all your stock in the tool, when it’s the connections you need?

Being an expert is all about real-life experience and real-life work. It’s not about numbers and networks, it’s about what you can do with them.

I think the real social media experts need to man up (or woman up), step up, and assume the title. Don’t let the snarky people scare you off. Don’t adopt this falsely humble, “aw shucks, I’m not smart enough to be an expert” attitude. If you’ve been in the persuasion business for more than five years, you can start calling yourself an expert. Everyone else in every other field is calling themselves an expert in their job. Why should the charlatans and fakers scare you off?

They need to stop being scared off by those people who heard someone once say “there are no social media experts” and are now parroting it like it’s gospel; the people who think social media is rapidly changing, but no other industry in the world is; the people who think social media is brand new, forgetting that Facebook started in 2004, LinkedIn started in 2003, blogging has been around since 1994, and AOL was actually one of the first social media networks. Since the mid 1980s.

(And for those people who are going to say, “Nuh-uh, Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours to be an expert,” please go actually read the book. He said you need 10,000 hours to be an outlier, not an expert. The outlier is that person who is outstanding in their field — Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan, Bobby Fisher, Bill Gates — the expert is the person who knows a hell of a lot about their field, but may never rise to the level of the outliers.)

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.