As an entrepreneur or business owner, you know the truth that two things are vitally important in growing your business: improving the skills of your people (and yourself) to best deliver what the customer wants, and finding even more innovative ways to continuously improve your offering.
But if your mantra for improvement is “practice, practice, practice” as outlined in the 10,000 hour rule, you could be doing more damage than you expect.
One of the most commonly cited figures when it comes to improving yourself is the so-called 10,000 hour rule, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. It asserted that people who were performing at an expert level, such as musicians or sportspeople, had practiced for approximately 10,000 hours up to that point.
However, the authors behind the original study now claim that he wasn’t actually very accurate.
This has wide implications for anyone trying to develop a skill and expertise, both vitally important for coming up with and executing new ideas, and as such especially pertinent to entrepreneurs.
What the original study actually found
In 1993 Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer published the results of a study on Berlin music academy violinists, showing the most accomplished of them had put in an average of ten thousand hours of practice by age 20. It was not until 2008 though, with the publication of “Outliers,” that the paper’s results attracted much attention from outside the scientific community.
After all, it was an easy to remember sound bite: If you wanted to become a master at anything, whether it be painting, karate or accounting, you need to focus and practice for 10,000 hours. (Or in many cases, force your younger children to practice for this long).
Recently, Ericsson and co-author Robert Pool wanted to clarify what the science actually says in their new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. They recently laid out some of its main points in an article for Salon, where they pointed out the fundamental flaws with the 10,000 hour rule:
The rule is irresistibly appealing. It’s easy to remember, for one thing. It would’ve been far less effective if those violinists had put in, say, eleven thousand hours of practice by the time they were twenty. And it satisfies the human desire to discover a simple cause-and-effect relationship: just put in ten thousand hours of practice at anything, and you will become a master.
They then go into detail about the first of its specific flaws:
Problem 1: The number 10,000 was chosen arbitrarily
First, there is nothing special or magical about ten thousand hours. Gladwell could just as easily have mentioned the average amount of time the best violin students had practiced by the time they were eighteen (approximately seventy-four hundred hours) but he chose to refer to the total practice time they had accumulated by the time they were twenty, because it was a nice round number.
And, either way, at eighteen or twenty, these students were nowhere near masters of the violin. They were very good, promising students who were likely headed to the top of their field, but they still had a long way to go when at the time of the study.
I will come back to this point later in this article, because it is very important to differentiate between the amount of time that is required to become extremely good at something, to become a master at something and to become the world’s best at something.
Problem 2: 10,000 hours was only the average
Second, the number of ten thousand hours at age twenty for the best violinists was only an average. Half of the ten violinists in that group hadn’t actually accumulated ten thousand hours at that age.
10,000 hours of practice will actually only keep you level on average with everyone else working towards your same goal. At most stages in your life, if you’re committed to practice and improvement, that figure means you’ll be ahead of about half of your competition, but still be behind the other half.
Finally, here is the piece of information that may have the biggest impact for most people in their own pursuit of developing their skills:
Problem 3: Practice itself isn’t enough
Third, Gladwell didn’t distinguish between the type of practice that the musicians in our study did — a very specific sort of practice referred to as “deliberate practice” which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them.
This is where we get to the crux of what makes some people improve faster than others. Deliberate practice is about being completely honest with yourself about what you want to improve, finding the best ways to actually achieve that improvement, and then actually executing that practice even if it is challenging and uncomfortable.
It is all about pushing yourself beyond your comfort barriers for a specific purpose, because that is where you see the greatest gains.
There is a large amount of evidence coming from neuroscience and cognitive psychology that your brain is incredibly effective at recognising patterns and essentially working on auto-pilot. In fact, this optical illusion can show you the exact moment that your brain stops processing your sensory input and instead switches to processing based on memory and experiences.
This is why there is such a fundamental difference between just practice and deliberate practice.
If you just “spend time practicing”, by spending time doing a task, you will not improve as quickly as if you focus on what you want that time practicing to achieve. There is an unbelievable story of Kobe Bryant spending several hours before team training with the Team USA Olympic Basketball team, focusing solely on making 800 jump shots.
In fact, if your definition of practice is to repeat what you have previously done, over and over again without pushing yourself further, it will only make your brain less flexible and make it harder for you to be creative in the long term.
What does this all mean for you and me?
If this all seems a bit depressing, then it shouldn’t be.
While this evidence suggests that it might be hard to become one of the world’s best performers, most of us are not out to achieve that. For most of us, we want to know whether we can improve enough to see ourselves become better and feel like we are achieving something.
Here, Ericsson and Pool give their view on what their research actually suggests.
In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.
If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement … but you have only scratched the surface.
You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.
Additionally, it is important to remember that you don’t need to be a world-class performer to be creative and have ideas. You just need some insights into the field you’re working on, and a willingness to try things in a new way.
There are also little things you can do to “practice” your creativity. From my work, I’ve identified which simple activities, if done regularly, help you become even better at coming up with ideas in whatever field you work. It’s like deliberate practice for your creativity. It’s called the 30 Day Creativity Training tracker and you can download it for free.
About the author:
Nick Skillicorn helps individuals and companies improve their creativity and turbocharge their innovation efforts, so that they can finally deliver on the value and ideas they’ve been struggling to execute. He is the CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting, Chief Editor & Founder of IdeatoValue.com, author and TEDx Speaker, and has already helped thousands of entrepreneurs grow their innovation capabilities through his unique insights into recent scientific findings of how creativity works, and what it takes for ideas to succeed. To learn more about how to become more creative, check out his site IdeatoValue.com.