Beyond the 10,000 hour myth – how we really acquire skill

John Ferguson Smart | Mentor | Author | Speaker - Author of 'BDD in Action'.
Helping teams deliver more valuable software soonerMarch 5, 2016

As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect”. Indeed, a well-established piece of lore, popularly known as “The 10,000 hour rule”, states that to be an expert in any domain, you need to have practiced it for at least 10,000 hours. This rule was coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” in 2008. According to Gladwell, to become a true expert, you must put in the hours over a long period of time.

However, it turns out that this rule is at best only partially true, and at worse grossly misleading. Anders Ericsson is the psychologist at the Florida State University whose work on expertise lead to the 10,000 hour rule in the first place. He describes Gladwell’s take on his work as:

“[A] popularized but simplistic view of our work, which suggests that anyone who has accumulated sufficient number of hours of practice in a given domain will automatically become an expert and a champion.”

For example, Gladwell neglects to mention that not just any practice will do. Thequality of the practice, not just the quantity, matters. For best results, the practice should be deliberate and well structured, where an expert coach or mentor works with you over a period of months or years, with your full concentration.

In fact, even the figures used by Gladwell are unhelpful. The figure of 10,000 hours was based on the average time world-class musicians and sportsman had practiced. Some practiced a lot less, and some practiced considerably more. And, in any case, few of us aspire to be world champions in our particular speciality, let alone all of the skills that we need to get our daily work done. And as we will see shortly, proficiency can be acquired with far fewer than 10,000 hours of practice.

So we can safely put the myth of the 10,000 hours to rest. However, there are a some useful learnings that we can take away from the work of Ericsson and a few others.

Practice is essential

Although the 10,000 hours figure may be wrong, experience does of course contribute to proficiency.  A two-day course will not make you a master of anything, but it may start you on a journey where, with time, you can become proficient.

But how you spend the time matters. You don’t get ten year’s experience by repeating the same year ten times. You need to have been confronted by many different situations and figured out how to solve many different problems. The brain is great at pattern-matching, and if you come across a problem similar to one you have solved in the past, chances are it will be easier for you to solve it this time round. But building up that database of practical experience with different problems and solutions can only come with time.

The Dreyfus model of skills acquisition describes this process in terms of 5 levels of skill:

  1. Novice, where you simply follow the practices you were taught;
  2. Advanced beginner, where you begin to have seen enough examples to be able to apply the rules you where taught in other contexts;
  3. Competent, when you understand where other rules or variations might be applicable,
  4. Proficient, where you gain a deeper understanding of why some rules might be better than others in certain circumstances, and
  5. Expert, where you can extend the rules or even make your own

Another learning model is the Shu-Ha-Ri model found in many martial arts and practices, from Aikido to the Japanese game of Go. In this model, there are three stages of learning: Shu, Ha and Ri.

  • In Shu, you follow the instructions of the teacher, faithfully and with no variations. The focus is on learning the moves by heart, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. After a time, you will have fully absorbed the moves you have been taught, and they will become part of your “muscle memory”. At this point you are ready to move onto the Ha stage,
  • In Ha, you can start to build on your learning, and innovate with the forms you have learnt. You start to learn the theory that underlies your training, and you can start to study and incorporate teachings from other masters.
  • Finally, in Ri, you have absorbed the teachings to the point where you no longer need a master. At this level, you learn not from another master but from your own practice, and you can start to create your own style and adapt what you have learnt to your own circumstances.

One of the key takeaways from both of these models is that you can’t just jump straight to the top level. Although different people may pass through the levels at different speeds, you need to pass through and master each level before you can move onto the next.

However, it turns out there are some things you can do to speed up your journey. In particular, you can accelerate your progression by not only practicing a lot, but being selective in what you practice.

This is what Daniel Goleman, in his book “Focus”, refers to as Deliberate Practice.

It’s how you practice that really matters

When Anders Ericsson did the original research that Gladwell (incorrectly) distilled into the “10,000 rule”, he was studying world-class violinists. He found that the best-performing violinists had not only practiced for over 10,000 hours, but they have practiced in a way that focuses on improving some aspect of their skills. In addition, they have someone (a teacher or mentor) to guide their learning along the way. He calls this “deliberate practice”. According to Ericsson,“you have to tweak the system by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits”.

Similar things happen in other fields. When you train with a personal trainer at the gym, a good personal trainer will take you through a carefully tailored training program over a period of time. The program will be designed based on your current level of fitness and your goals. Sure, you could do the exercises yourself, but it would take longer and you might hurt yourself in the process: your personal trainer will be able to tell you what exercises you should repeat, how heavy the weights should be, and what new exercises you should do at each stage. And your personal trainer will adjust this program based on your progress.

So how might this be relevant for your own professional development? Goleman identifies several aspects that make deliberate practice effective, and that can be applied in almost any domain. These are:

  • Tailored, varied practice,
  • Focus,
  • Feedback

Let’s see how these work.

Tailored, varied practice

Practice makes perfect, but not just any practice. When you learn a new skill, you are effectively strengthening your brain rather than your muscles. Neuroplasticity is the term scientists use for the way the brain physically changes when we learn new things.  When we learn something new, practice strengthens the existing circuits in the brain and helps to build new ones.

However, once we have mastered a particular skill, and the circuits in the brain are formed, extra practice for this skill, at this level, will have limited benefits. We need to move on to trying something harder or to learning a different skill.

Focus

But the circuits only get stronger if we are paying attention and if we are being challenged; when we daydream, the effect is lost. When we concentrate, on the other hand, our brains work harder and faster, new connections are formed, and the real learning takes place.

Feedback

Feedback is what helps us correct our errors quickly. Dancers practice in front of a mirror so that they can spot errors as they do them. A good teacher will tell a student what she is doing wrong, and how she can do better. The sooner she gets this feedback, the faster she will learn.

Deliberate Practice in the professional world

Techniques like Deliberate Practice might seem something that you can only do on an individual level. However, you can observe the same learning patterns, and apply the same principles of Deliberate Practice, for teams.

Team dynamics are complex. Each team has its own learning culture, and its own level of skill, which is not simply the average of the  We have all seen how some teams perform better than others. Teams have their own levels of skill and cultures of learning, which depend more on how the team members interact with each other than how skilled individual team members are. A recent study of over 180 teams at Google revealed that the most significant factor in high performance teams was not the proficiency of the individual team members, but how comfortable they felt with each other.

There are many ways we can apply the ideas behind Deliberate Practice to team learning. Here are a few examples.

  • Tailored, varied practice
    Group exercises such as coding dojos or similar exercises are a great way to build team skills in different areas.
  • Focus
    When people work together, they tend to be more focused and less easily distracted than when they work alone. For this reason, pair programming and it’s variations are great ways to get people “in the zone”.
  • Feedback
    Countless Agile and Lean techniques are designed to provide faster feedback. In addition to these, coaches and mentors, both within the team and from outside the team, play a vital role in providing fast, useful feedback. Technical mentors provide feedback and facilitate learning for developers. Agile practices coaches give the team feedback on their agile adoption. And strategically-Minded coaches can give feedback about how features are prioritised and planned.

There are of course others. The takeaway is that team skill levels are not fixed in stone, and are not dependent on the current level of skill (or lack thereof) of individual team members. On the contrary, building up a team’s overall skill is both achievable and desirable. But it won’t happen by accident – you need to be deliberate about it.

Good luck!

© 2019 John Ferguson Smart