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It's an often repeated internet certainty that, to be truly good at something, you need to practice for 10,000 hours. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this theory (or hypothesis?) gained popularity with Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers.

Is there any factual basis for this claim, other that the fact that more practice is better?

This theory has been mentioned in other questions and answers right here on skeptics:

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    It isn't even that accurate though, just an arbitrary number. And "truly good" is an arbitrary and impossible to measure line in the sand. Anyway, truly good surely means different things to different people. Worse, 10000 hours, spent over what amount of time? 1 hour per day? Or 10 hours per day? Or every waking minute for as long as it takes? I'll bet you get different results in those various cases. And when does it start? 10000 hours, starting at age 16 when the brain is malleable, or at age 60? Again it matters. – user3344 Aug 31 '12 at 9:35
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    The funny thing is, I've heard the number 10000 applied to other things, like hands of bridge. I've heard it stated that it takes 10000 hands of bridge played to become truly good at bridge. Again, it is just a big number, chosen to represent a significant stint of time. Just the fact that it is such a round number makes it less plausible. – user3344 Aug 31 '12 at 11:12
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    @drxzcl: When we get these sort of vague questions, it is useful to ask "What sort of evidence would it take to convince you that the claim is right or wrong?" – Oddthinking Aug 31 '12 at 12:09
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    10,000 hours sounds a little high. That's 8 hours a day, every day for 3.4 years. It certainly doesn't take that long to become truly good at something as simple as addition. My 6 year old daughter has pretty much mastered addition and there's no way she has spent 10,000 hours on it. I think it really depends on the skill you're trying to be "truly good" at, whatever that means. – Kibbee Aug 31 '12 at 12:56
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    I disagree that the question is vague. The original theory is vague. The question is precise. I would be satisfied with eg research that measures long term learning progress in various fields. See, I think it mostly junk, but I would like to be able to rebut it (or confirm it) efficiently. Unfortunately, if something is repeated enough it becomes true by default. – drxzcl Aug 31 '12 at 15:05
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Well it's hardly a full-scale scientific trial, but someone is actually putting this to the test right now: there is a Dan McLaughlin who has set out to do 10,000 hours of deliberate golf practice from complete novice... and we'll just have to wait and see how good they end up. So far they've done around 3,300 hours.

The Freakonomics people have some commentary on his programme here and some writing on Ericcson's theories here. Reading the Ericsson paper they cite, the only mention of 10,000 hours seems to be

In the following discussion we reexamine the evidence ... for the role of innate differences in the attainment of expert performance. The dichotomy between characteristics that can be modified and those that cannot may not be valid when we examine the effects of over 10,000 h of deliberate practice extended over more than a decade.

and the one cited by @Josh's answer also contains only one mention:

By the age of 20, the best musicians had spent over 10,000 hours practicing, which averages 2,500 and 5,000 hours more than two less-accomplished groups of musicians at the same academy, respectively.

So really all this 10,000 hours figure is, is a guide to the magnitude of the amount of practicing needed to significantly influence expertise, at least in Ericcsons's studies. However, it's a memorable enough soundbite that it seems to have taken on a life of it's own. Further, once the the "deliberate practice" aspect has been forgotten (e.g see comments on original post!) people find it useful as a tool to justify complacency ("well I've been doing this job for a few years and at least 10000 hours easily; so of course I must be an expert now").

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I think the 10,000 hours of practice you are referring to is the idea that Anders Ericsson talks about in some of his work on expertise, made popular by Malcolm Gladwells book "Outliers". The idea is not just 10,000 hours of repetitive practice, but Ericsson talks about the concept of "deliberate practice". It's practice that has the qualities of:

  • being specifically designed for improvement of what is being practiced
  • subject to consistent feedback from a coach or some kind of expert who can help direct your practice
  • being intensely mentally engaging/challenging.
  • being consistently worked at over a long period of time

Very different than mindlessly doing something automatically for 10,000 hours.

I don't know how important the actual number 10,000 is, I think there's some debate surrounding that, but if you practice with those qualities in mind for a long period of time you will most likely improve more than you would if you mindlessly repeat something for the same amount of time.

Ericsson wrote an article explaining some of what I am talking about better than I can. [PDF]

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  • I always assumed the "10000 hours" was an order of magnitude number; a "physicists estimate": "well the number is more than 1000 and less than 100000 so it must be 10000". Great PDF link BTW, thanks. – timday Sep 6 '12 at 22:48
  • Well, 100000 hours of practice would be a professional career (8 hrs a day, 240 days a year) of over 52 years. Considering it's rare for people to break 40 years, it's rather a silly upper limit. – drxzcl Oct 27 '12 at 18:50
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If you are a programmer, there is an old yet well-known article by Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google. It's called Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years.

Several studies are quoted, as well as the Malcolm Gladwell report. The 10 000 hours are the result of a study on students at the Berlin Academy of Music.

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