Being exceptional at something is often attributed to one’s genes. Talent is passed down from parents or grandparents it seems, whether it is musical or artistic skill, ability with numbers or being great at juggling. No doubt there are significant genetic factors involved, but there are almost certainly environmental factors in the mix too. Perhaps the two work together, one boosting the other, so that those remarkable genes give rise to remarkable talent only if the skills are suitably nurtured.
However, many people now recognise that talent is learned and earned through extended and intense practice of a skill. No pain, no gain, as they say, in which case genes may have little to do with it.
This idea is encapsulated in a golden rule made popular by the writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. This “10,000 hours of practice” rule is based on research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, now at Florida State University. The rule tells us, a mere 10,000 hours of dedicated practice in your particular field is sufficient to bring out the best in you. Is this true? Let’s trace how the rule emerged.
In essence, Ericsson’s theory suggests that sufficient practice in a particular skill can take anyone to a proficiency level equivalent to that of a top classical musician. To illustrate the point, Gladwell focuses on one of Ericsson’s key studies on violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music. Students had begun playing at around five years of age, all putting in similar practice times, but by age eight, the practice times began to diverge, some practising more than others. By age twenty, the elite performers totalled 10,000 hours of practice each, while the merely good students had totalled 8,000 hours, and the lesser-able performers had just over 4,000 hours of practice.
Ericsson and his colleagues discovered a similar pattern in professional and amateur pianists. By the age of twenty, amateurs had put in 2,000 hours of practice, whereas professionals had done considerably more – reaching 10,000 hours, in fact. “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise,” writes Gladwell in Outliers.
Gladwell points out that all great sportspeople, performers and even computer programmers got in their 10,000 hours of practice in their particular art early in life, allowing them to shine while their less-diligent contemporaries were still grappling with the basics. For instance, he cites the figure of 10,000 hours in connection with the early days of The Beatles when they played almost endless nights in the clubs and bars of Hamburg, Germany, between 1960 and 1964. This opportunity gave them something few musicians had during that era – plenty of time to practice. Ultimately, says Gladwell, this is what made the Fab Four top musicians and songwriters.
He also cites Bill Gates, the co-founder of computer software giant Microsoft, as a great example of the 10,000-hour rule. He had rare access to a computer in 1968 at the age of 13, at a time when most of his school friends in Seattle would have been playing baseball, or dreaming of putting flowers in their hair and heading to San Francisco. Gates spent night times and weekends with friends in the computer room, which gave him a substantial head start in the area of programming, and apparently allowed him to build his company at a much younger age than he might otherwise have been able to.
Many of us imagine that hours and hours spent on our chosen pursuit are somehow edging us towards that target of 10,000. I’ve played guitar since the age of 12, but I don’t imagine that I’m anything but a total amateur – musically speaking – I’ve not put in the dedicated, repetitive practice. Anyone who has heard me strumming might suggest that I plug headphones into my guitar amp and practise for another 10,000 hours before letting anyone ever hear me play again.