The 10,000 Hour Rule: Fact or Fiction?

You can master anything in 10,000 hours, right? Thanks to Malcom Gladwell and various other popular self-help authors, many folks these days believe the answer is, unqualifiedly, “yes.”  However, as Daniel Goleman explains in his new book, Focus, the reality is that “it depends.” The thesis of Mr. Goleman’s book is that 10,000 hours is an arbitrary, quantitative measure mistakingly applied to a necessarily qualitative process: the mastery of a skill. In other words, it may take more or less than 10,000 hours to achieve mastery depending on the quality of the time spent.

Several factors bear on the quality of practice time. Fundamentally, the goal of practice is to identify and correct errors, as repeating them will not inch one any closer to mastery. Essential to this process is feedback: to the ballet dancer, this might be a mirror; to the musician, a recording; to the lawyer or doctor, constructive criticism from a masterful mentor.

The true master does not set his trajectory to auto-pilot at the point of proficiency; he continues to make mistakes, correct them and improve perpetually.  At some point along the way, he earns the mantle of “master.” The principle is not new, for in the words of Roman philosopher Cicero: “Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.”

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