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.

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)

Rethinking Social Media Experts

(Originally posted on DeckersMarketing.com on August 17, 2009.)

A few days ago, I wrote that we need to rethink this whole “there’s no such thing as social media experts” nonsense.

The argument, as stated by some non-social media people, is something to the effect of:

  1. Malcolm Gladwell says you have to do something for 10,000 hours to be an expert.
  2. Social media tools like Twitter are not 10,000 hours old.
  3. You can’t have used Twitter for 10,000 hours.
  4. Therefore, there are no social media experts.

This is utter bullshit.

Most of the NSME (“no social media experts”) crowd seem to think it’s the use, knowledge, and experience of the tools that make one an expert. The tools are not important. The tools are just tools. Real expertise lies in two other areas: message creation and social psychology. That is, what to say, and how it will affect your chosen audience/group.

Social Media Expertise - Venn Diagram

(Big thanks to my friend Lalita Amos, author of the now-famous N-Word Manifesto, for helping me come up with this idea. A never-long-enough meeting with her launched my brain in this direction. She deserves the credit for pushing it off that way.)

Speak to the dog, in the language of the dog, about things that matter to the heart of the dog.

Marketing relies strongly on those other two areas. The true social media experts are actually reformed marketers and PR pros. They’re Message Experts. They know how to create strong messages, and they know how those messages affect their targeted groups. They’re not tool experts. They’re not necessarily experts at graphic design, TV and radio production, or website creation. They hire the people who are. They focus strictly on making the best possible message.

Similarly, they’re Social Psychology experts. They know how a message will affect their target audience, and how and when to change the message for a different audience. They know they can’t just throw a message out there and hope for the best. They can, as I like to say, speak to the dog, in the language of the dog, about things that matter to the heart of the dog. The good marketer/PR pro speaks Dog. They may not be a dog, but they speak it as a second language.

The Tools Don’t Make the Carpenter

Norm Abram, the master carpenter on PBS’ New Yankee Workshop and This Old House, learned how to build houses and woodworking projects from his dad. Norm is old enough that his father taught him these skills on hand tools. Norm’s dad built houses using a hammer, hand saws, drills, and block planes. So Norm learned how to use these tools.

However, as Norm got older, he began to use power tools. Now, on his show, he has about 10 routers, multiple power drills, and enough nail guns to start a war with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. His dad, on the other hand, never made that jump, until after he retired.

One time when his dad was visiting for several days, Norm taught his dad how to use the tools.. He had never used routers or table saws before, so this was a brand new experience for him. But after a few days, he was up to speed on these new tools, and was creating projects with the same quality and skill he had been doing with block planes and hand saws.

According to the NSME crowd, Norm’s dad would no longer have been an expert, because he hadn’t spent 10,000 hours using those tools, as if all the knowledge had flown out of his head.

However, it wasn’t the knowledge of these new tools that made Norm’s dad a master carpenter, it was the knowledge of how to make straight cuts and fasten pieces of wood together. For his dad, it was the decades of knowledge of joinery techniques (message) and how to assemble the wood into functional pieces of furniture that would be appealing to people (social psychology).

Those Who Can’t Do, Coach

Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is about people who have a freakish level of mastery of their chosen skill. They’re the Peyton Mannings, Michael Jordans, and Tiger Woods of the world. They have a level of expertise in all three circles. They’ve got expertise in the tools, the “message,” and the “social psychology.”

Peyton Manning has the tools, the message, and the social psychology. He’s 6’4″ with the laser rocket arm, he has a mastery of all the plays in the playbooks, and knows how other teams will react to the plays they will run (he does this by studying game film with an almost compulsive obsession. So Peyton Manning is obviously a 10,000 hour expert.

But what about Clyde Christensen? He’s the new offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts. Clyde has never played professional football (he was a QB at North Carolina University), but he has been a coach since 1979. He doesn’t have the same tools as our laser-rocket-armed quarterback, but he knows as much about the plays and what the other teams are going to do. Similarly, Larry Coyer, the Colts’ defensive coordinator, knows what his defense needs to do when the other teams look like they’re going to run certain plays.

Neither of them have the tools that their players do, or if they did, they don’t anymore. But they’re masters of the other two.

That’s where the real expertise lies. Not in the tools, but in the knowledge of the other two areas.

For the real social media experts, and there are more of those than the social media haters realize, we know about proper messaging, and we know how to package that message to our different target audiences. The tools we use just make our lives easier.

Five years ago, we had to communicate with websites and emails. Fifteen years ago, we communicated with TV and radio commercials. Twenty years ago, we communicated with newspaper ads. And while we had experts in creating content for those tools, the important knowledge — messaging and psychology — has remained the same.

Until the tools become so wildly different that messaging and social psychology has to change with it, we need to accept the fact that there are real social media experts in the world, and we know what we’re talking about.

Yes Virginia, There Are Social Media EXPERTS

(Originally published on DeckersMarketing.com on August 14, 2009)

I’ve been thinking about the whole “there’s no such thing as social media experts” argument lately.

I’ve decided it’s wrong. It’s utter crap. I no longer believe it, and think the people who believe it are just parroting someone else they heard say it and thought it sounded cool.

We’ve heard this “no such thing” argument from a lot of people, including me, who all sound like a bunch of 8-year-olds fighting on the playground.

“Nuh-uh! Social media isn’t even 10,000 hours old. Malcolm Gladwell says you have to have 10,000 hours of experience to be an expert!”

Fair enough. Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that if you want to have a true mastery of a skill, you need 10,000 hours of work, practice, and study in that field.

However, keep in mind that this is to be a superstar in your field. The Michael Jordans, the Peyton Mannings, the Tiger Woods. If you want to be that good, then yes, you have to have 10,000 hours or more of practice.

But what about to be just “decent?” To be better than most? You don’t have to be better than everyone, you just have to be better than your clients, your colleagues, or the people who just invited you to speak to their trade association for a few thousand bucks. (Do you really want to tell those guys you’re not really an expert?)

Think about it. Do you truly have 10,000 hours of experience in your chosen field? If you’re a public speaker, have you given 10,000 1-hour speeches? If you’re in public relations and you consider yourself a good press release writer, have you truly written press releases for 10,000 hours? And how many years would it take to rack up 10,000 hours of experience as a professional photographer? (Measure it in 1/60th of a second increments.)

Let’s face it, there aren’t that many experts in any field. The 10,000 hour commandment we’ve all accepted as gospel from St. Malcolm is not appropriate for us.

My friend Doug Karr decided it was a load of bullshit last month, and has a new definition for an expert.

Peter Shankman has a big list about ways to tell if your social media expert is not really an expert. (My favorite: 5. Everything they learned about social media they learned by reading blog posts (i.e. no application). You can learn a ton about sex from reading Kinsey’s manuals, but I’d still rather be with someone who has some practical experience.

So I think we need a new standard when calling ourselves an expert, whether it’s social media, public relations, photographer, etc. And it’s a simple, 4-question survey. If you can answer yes to all four of these questions, you’re an expert. If you can’t, well, then get back to work until you can.

  1. Do you know more about your tool/method/equipment than most people? Would you be graded on the 90th percentile or even 95th percentile in terms of knowledge?
  2. Can you speak intelligently about the application and usage of that tool/method/equipment? Are you asked to give presentations and/or teach others about it?
  3. Have you written extensively about that tool/method/equipment? Have you published articles, blog posts, or even books on the subject? Do you have an extensive body of work that demonstrates your knowledge?
  4. Are you generally recognized by your peers as having some authority and credibility in this subject? Does your name come up frequently when someone asks, “who knows a lot about?”

If you can’t answer yes to these questions, it doesn’t matter how many hours you’ve spent on that subject. I can think of six people who I would gladly hang the label “social media expert” on, because they can answer “hell, yes!” to each of these questions.

To the people who put “social media expert” in the same “no such thing” camp as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, get over yourselves. Just because no one is recognizing you as an expert doesn’t mean you have to get all snarky about the ones who really are.

I’m with you when it comes to booting out the so-called experts who have only been using Facebook for six months, and that’s to play Pirate Clan. But when you’ve got people who are truly well-versed on the tools, don’t give me this “10,000 hour” bullshit when it just doesn’t apply in this case.

It doesn’t matter if these tools are less than five years old. It’s not the tool that matters. The tool is useless and pointless, and it doesn’t make you an expert.

Knowing what messages to send and how your message and those tools will affect a group (social psychology) is where the expertise lies. In a few days, I’ll be writing about how knowing how to use the tools is not nearly as important as knowing what messages to send and the social psychology of a group is where the true expertise lies.