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In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell leans on a study from Anders Ericsson of high-performing musicians and concludes that people who master a craft or skill do so not simply because of their innate talents, or the fact they work hard, but through a combination of natural ability, luck (being in the right place at the right time), and a type of preparation that far exceeds that of their peers. He writes:

“The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

The 10,000 Hour Rule.

Gladwell points to Mozart and Bill Gates for backup. But his most famous example is the Beatles. The rock group exploded on the scene in 1964 and delivered an astounding number of terrific songs within a five-year period. Why did the Beatles win the day (or better said, the decade)?

Gladwell would acknowledge the “luck” factor of being the right band for the right time, as well as the fact that all four were born with musical ability that could be developed. But the biggest factor, he surmises, was their “boot camp” experience of playing in Hamburg, Germany for eight hours a night, seven days a week. In just a year and a half, they performed over 270 nights, deliberately seeking to improve their skills the entire time. “The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart,” he writes.

Talent and Deliberate Practice

Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated makes a similar argument. Forget the idea that people are born as prodigies, he says. What sets you apart is “deliberate practice”—an activity designed specifically to improve performance, usually with a teacher’s help. It’s not just that you do the same thing over and over again, but that you work deliberately on improving a skill.

To be clear: 10,000 hours will not make you an expert in something. You need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

There are preachers who pass the 10,000-hour mark and still aren’t very good. Plenty of businesspeople do mindless tasks for decades and get comfortable and good at what they do, but they’re not great. You can write for hours a day, but simply writing won’t make you a great writer.

What matters is having clear objectives and goals, breaking down the skill into parts, and then working on whatever element most needs improvement. It’s the preacher who works on a particular aspect of preaching every week, with a coach or mentor as guide. It’s the businessperson who works hard to master basic parts of sales and marketing. It’s the writer who takes to heart Stephen King’s reminder (“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”) and then combines hard work with editorial critique.

That’s the 10,000 Hour Rule. But is it legitimate? Hasn’t it been debunked?

The 10,000 Hour Rule Debunked?

A few years ago, the Royal Society Open Science journal replicated the 1993 study on violin players that Gladwell popularized as the 10,000 hour “magic number of greatness.” The replicated study involved a larger sample size and tighter study controls, and the researchers discovered that practice does matter for performance, but not as much as the original article claimed. Deliberate practice makes a difference, but the difference isn’t always substantial enough to account for what makes someone an expert.

So, despite its popularity, the 10,000 Hour Rule doesn’t explain success in many cases. But this fact doesn’t keep me from relying on it when I want to emphasize the importance of deliberate practice. And reflecting on what makes for standout performance has led me to another conclusion.

The Head Start

Over the years, as I’ve looked for commonalities in highly successful people, one thing stands out: the head start. You can find it right there in Gladwell’s examples, although he doesn’t give it much attention.

  • Mozart started early (at the age of three) and was already composing as a teenager, well before he won the world’s acclaim.
  • The Beatles outpaced their peers not only because of Hamburg but because they had seven years together (aside from Ringo) to experiment and cultivate their musical prowess before they became household names.
  • The same is true for Gladwell’s other examples, and some of Colvin’s also: Bobby Fischer the chess player, Bill Gates, etc.

Success didn’t come just from the hours of practice, but the head start.

The same is true for Hollywood success stories.

  • Many successful sitcoms star comedians who spent night after night doing stand-up comedy (Bob Newhart, Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen).
  • The pattern fits the radio comedy shows most successful in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny—these entertainers honed their skills through vaudeville for years before radio took off.
  • The same is true of classic TV. You can find subpar episodes in the first couple seasons of I Love Lucy, but it’s astounding the number of “classics” that came out early in its run. No other show in that period rose so quickly to that level of consistent excellence. One reason for Lucy’s success (beyond the extraordinary talent of its four principal characters) is that the writers had already spent three years delivering more than 120 scripts for Lucille Ball’s radio show My Favorite Husband. The writers already knew what jokes would land and what situations would work, and so they drew from those older episodes and incorporated some of the same plot lines. They had a “head start.”

What’s the takeaway? How might deliberate practice and the “head start” affect the way you do your work? Here are a few points of application.

1. Develop a craftsman mindset.

It’s certainly good to be a generalist, to have the ability to do multiple things well. But in a world of generalists, it’s the specialist who does one thing masterfully who will most likely stand out. This is the mindset of the craftsman.

Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You argues for becoming good at a craft. He says you should not follow your passion, but discern your skill.

  • The passion mindset asks: “What value does my job bring me?”
  • The craftsman mindset asks: “What value am I bringing to the world?”

Don’t just follow your passions, Newport says. Find something you’re good at, focus on your skills, and get better. Your passion will follow.

Develop the craftsman mindset. You might master a topic, take on a craft, meet an intellectual challenge, or pick up a musical instrument. Whatever it is, seek to serve others with that skill. Be a specialist in a world of generalists.

2. Examine your habits.

Not long ago, a high-performing leader told me he had the habit of getting to work two hours before anyone else. (I realize his schedule only works if you’re a morning person!) “By Thursday,” he said, “I’ve put in a full day’s work more than everyone else.” His point wasn’t that everyone should work longer hours, but about getting a head start.

Whenever I’m astounded by someone’s mastery of a craft and I ask how they’ve achieved such skill, the answer usually disappoints because of its simplicity. “Time.” Which leads to the question, How are you spending your time?

If you want to grow in your theological knowledge, for example, you need to spend a whole lot more time in books than on social media. You must relentlessly eliminate distractions. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try this: in the course of a week, track how you spend your time. Then look back. If you’re like most people, you’ll see how much of your time and attention is devoted to trivial things, or how much your concentration is broken from jumping from one thing to another—a concept Newport calls “attention residue,” which requires time before we can fully reengage whatever it is we were working on.

3. Don’t waste your twenties.

I realize that this last point only applies to younger people reading this post, but here’s where the head start counts. It’s not just that you put in the work of 10,000 hours doing whatever it is you want to become an expert in, but when you start putting in those hours that matters.

I often tell people who are in college or seminary that their journey in developing skills and mastering knowledge has already begun. If you only read the books assigned in class, you’re missing a golden opportunity to amass knowledge—to build a foundation you can build upon for decades to come.

The more you learn, of course, the more you’ll realize how much you don’t know. But unless you take that initial dive and determine to get a head start, it will become harder and take longer to develop expertise in whatever field you choose.

The same is true in a number of areas. Playing a sport. Learning an instrument. Reading God’s Word every day.

Get a head start. Don’t waste your twenties. And if you’re beyond that age and feel like you’ve squandered years or decades that would have been better spent in deliberate practice, trust that the Lord still plans to use the particular gifts He’s given you—skills you can develop in the days ahead.

Hours to the Glory of God

In the end, whether or not you think the 10,000 Hour Rule is true or false, there’s no question that committing to hard work, engaging in deliberate practice, and getting a head start makes a difference. Whatever you set your mind to, do it to the glory of God and the good of the people around you.

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