The 10,000 hour rule: can we trust it?


It’s been said* that if you constructively practice anything well for around 10,000 hours you will have become world class at it. The argument is that talent is less relevant than effort. What do you think? Is this the case?

The Beatles 1964 and 1966 RevolverLet’s try to make it simple and compare like with like. Take a dozen or so rock ‘n’ roll bands from Liverpool in 1960 and send them to Hamburg in Germany to perform 8 hours a night or more in various nightclubs for two to three years. They all have the same background. They all have the same exposure to influences. They all start with similar ability (they’re all aged between 17 and 19 so have been playing music for the same amount of time, between 1 and 3 years).

They are all the same, and yet only one of those acts becomes the phenomenon known as The Beatles.

I’ve been talking about, researching and training creativity overtly for 8 years. (Yes, before that I was doing it covertly).

Creativity is still a dirty word. By dirty I mean messy. It almost doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes when I’ve been talking about it I’ve had to keep it so broad, to encompass so many things that it can become almost meaningless. I make a great point that it has to be practical, that it’s not just to do with a particular artistic discipline, that it’s about making connections, problem solving, intuitive leaps, experimentation and so on. There are different facets to it, like a diamond, and so many differing ways to engage it, express it and use it. It’s what makes us human (as opposed to animal). It’s what forms our beliefs, it’s what allows us to explore the universe and ourselves. It IS science. It IS civilisation.

Here’s a new definition for you: creativity is a human’s ability to imagine a future in the minds and then use the hands to manifest it.

But even with this glorious definition there is still a misnomer that exists. So many people still believe that some people are more creative than others. We’ve got to admit, the evidence is compelling. But it is really true?

I think it comes from a misinterpretation of what creativity is and what it does. People believe in ‘talent’ and often think that talent = ability = gifts = creativity. It doesn’t.

There are many observers who report that talent is a myth. They believe that any concerted effort into consistent constructed practice will deliver exceptional performance. They cite examples in sport, mathematics, performance, art, business, chess, science and so on. Almost everything in fact.

Are they right? If you practice, practice, practice in a constructive way, learning and growing, learning and growing for 10,000 hours or 10 years, you will become a world class expert? Really?

I think the answer is yes, and no.

The 10,000 hour rule works with certain activities. It works with activities that have their basis in pattern recognition. Any sport that is based on pattern recognition will improve with practice. This is true for tennis, football, motor racing and chess. If you want to know more on why those activities are pattern recognition and not reflexes or memory then you need to read these books: Bounce and Talent is Overrated. I’m not going to be going down that route here.

Any sport that relies on endurance, motor skills or strength will not improve with 10,000 hours practice past the limitations of a particular person’s body. We can all get fitter and stronger, but not without limit. Those limits are set by our particular skeleton, muscle arrangement etc. So we’ve found one hole in the practice theory.

It’s said that the Beatles did their ‘10,000 hours’** of practice in the night clubs of Hamburg, playing, as they did, 8 hours a night. To be able to do that, to play and sing for that length of time they needed a few things or they would have collapsed. They needed youthful energy and endurance (this was enhanced by them ingesting Preludin, a drug that increases metabolic rate, then a freely available diet pill, now known as speed), they needed to be able to sing correctly so they didn’t damage their voice boxes. They needed a large repertoire of songs so that they or their audiences didn’t get bored.

So their time in Hamburg made them world class rock ‘n’ roll performers. So the story goes, there was their 10,000 hours, and that’s what made them musical geniuses, right? Is that it?

The time in Hamburg made all those bands blumn’ good at playing Twist and Shout. But the Beatles version is undeniably better than all of them.

There were plenty of bands that performed to the same schedule as the Beatles and who came from the same starting point. Many of them we know about, you can get hold of their record and you can compare. Many of them were also signed by Brian Epstein to EMI’s Parlaphone label. Many of them were produced by George Martin and many of them had a few number one records. But only the Beatles went on to write amazing hits like She Loves You or I Want to Hold Your Hand within a year of coming back from Hamburg. Only the Beatles came up with groundbraking songs outside the rock ‘n’ roll genre of Hamburg like Yesterday or Eleanor Rigby. Out of all the Merseybeat groups that had exactly the same background and experience, only the Beatles re-defined rock music with Strawberry Fields Forever, Tomorrow Never Knows and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Cub Band.

So what did the Beatles and specifically Lennon McCartney have that the others lacked?

Can we really say that it was ‘talent’? And if so, where was that talent located and how did it emerge? Were they born brilliant? When did they become genius songwriters and how?

There’s even more to this question because if you looked at the Beatles in 1963 you would already recognise (as many comentators did) the genius songwriting skills of Lennon and McCartney, but you would have ignored George Harrison’s songwriting ability. You’d have pricked your ears up in 1966 to his contributions to Revolver but it wasn’t until  1969 with his songs Something and Here Comes the Sun and his triple solo LP All Things Must Pass in 1970 that made comentators place Harrison’s songwriting on an equal par to Lennon and McCartney (some would even place it higher).

So when did George become a genius? Was it with him all along? Was it innate talent, or was it developed by hanging around with the century’s greatest songsmiths? If it was environment, why don’t we value Ringo’s songwriting skills as highly? He was there all the time too?

Their story does point to something else, some other mechanism. But what? Were they born with the talent and potential to write Sgt. Pepper? Were they unique in that respect? If so what DOES that say for the rest of us? Is 10,000 hours spent a waste on time for mere mortals? We’ll no doubt get pretty good at singing Twist and Shout but will we ever be able to transform the experience into A Hard Days Night, never mind a Hey Jude?

Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that the Beatles really, really really wanted to write the greatest songs. They certainly had a driving passion for their chosen field. But just being super keen isn’t enough either, otherwise all the contestants on those talent shows who ‘I’ll shrivel up and die if I don’t make it as a star’ would eventually shine. We know that they don’t.

Perhaps the teenager living next door to you, playing Wild Thing or Stairway to Heaven very badly on his out-of-tune electric guitar at all hours, may well be a future George Harrison, if only he had the chance to perform and/or hang out with some serious masters for enough time? How can we know?

There STILL are too many questions when it comes to creativity and the weird, obfuscated

world of talent (whatever that is) and still not enough answers.

So for now we’ll have to just keep practicing, crank up our 10,000 hours in our chosen field after all, and make sure we do our best to follow our own passion in the best way we can.

* Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
** It was more likely 2500 hours, but that’s actually no less impressive.
Drawing by Ayd Instone. 

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


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11 comments on “The 10,000 hour rule: can we trust it?

  1. Great to see someone take on this idea. As someone who has probably notched up about 3000 hours, I can see that the time spent has to be spent in application and observance, not just repetition. It’s very clear that repetition allows for constant experimentation – and you’re always in the right place at the right time for random evolutionary events. Another very important factor is boredom – this leads to petulant deviation which is invaluable. Experience is like delving deep into a fractal – always shoring up existing beliefs, and whittling away flab.

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      • Most people misinterpret the 10k hour rule. Eriksson actually said that all “experts” needs 10k hours of deliberate practice: ie, with a coach, with goals in mind, with monitoring and with reflection. Drop one of these things and the total needed will fly. It’s simply not the case that repetition builds success. Coached deliberate self-reflective practice with set goals does.

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  2. The clue is in the use of Speed, this literally changes the speed of conscioisness so the Beatles only needed 2500 or so of linear hours. With non drug techniques of meditation, you can change the speed your mind operates by 4/8 times and learn how to do this with vipassanic techniqus while eye open awake – let me know if you’d like an MP3 that shows the process.

    P.S. the upper speed limit of infinity = the light bulb moment

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  3. Often wonder at the value of overly-quoted ‘pop’ figures, 10000 hours is one of those. This kind of discussion makes it far more valuable as the basis of ideas development. I read all youre articles Ayd even though I might not feedback all the time.
    In terms of personal interest and passions but excluding family (different thing)I’ve just worked out that I’ve clocked up well over 10000 hours in the training room and presenting , driving and ………….and this was a surprise………..writing. I haven’t ‘developed’ technically as well as I would have liked. My thing is experiential discovery. It might be ‘stupid’ not to use more of the pathways other people have trodden, but it has made for an interesting and challenging life.
    Now the writing is starting to take shape, capturing the elements of what I’ve picked up along the way the cultures I’ve experienced (have trained in 19 different countries to around 100 different nationalites) and finding something that works all over. WTF happened to this council house boy from Birmingham?
    One other thought is a quote from an ex-prem footballer who recently retired from playing, hard work will beat talent where talent doesn’t work hard. This is related to the physical boundaries in sport earlier in your post but equally pertinent for me. My element of ‘hard work’ is creating a mechanism which inspires me that will bring me earthly rewards for my more fabulous ideas – like my book CAKE! The recipes for success In Business. In Sport. In Life

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  4. Perhaps what set the Beatles apart was their irreverence: Gerry Marsden was prepared to accept the record company’s advice that he should record ‘How do you do it’; whereas the Beatles refused on the basis that it was cheesy and their own songs were better. So someone else (can’t remember if it was you Ayd or another creativity geezer called Ken Robinson) is the belief that our own ideas have value. When I saw McCartney at Anfield in 2008 he prefaced Blackbird by explaining that he’d been attempting to learn a JS Bach piece but couldn’t get it right and wrote Blackbird out of his mis-firing attempts to play it. A technically gifted or more conventional musician would have played the Bach piece and seen his own mistakes as inferior. I’m sure if Macca had worked on it for 10,000 hours he would have got it right; but we wouldn’t have got Blackbird!

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    • Thanks Mike. That’s a great point about irreverence, thanks. That was of course why Brian and George Martin fell for them in the first place, over and above their ‘talent’ or skill which was outside both of their personal preferences.

      I didn’t know that about Blackbird, it ties nicely with what I’m saying here: https://aydinstone.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/how-to-write-songs/ about songwriting being striving for perfection but getting sidetracked by the failure and building it in.

      I used to say in my talks that if you don’t value what you create, your saying your work is no more relevant than what you created this morning to be flushed down the toilet. A bit more damning (and ruder) than what Ken Robinson says (which is why I stopped saying it).

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  5. Great post. I agree there has to be more to it than just cranking out covers in Hamburg. I think Paul himself pointed out that other band did the same. Those hours got them to the point of being an incredibly tight band and taught them how good songs were constructed, the long hours meant they had to play blues, showtunes, jazz, folk – anything that people liked. But then luck came in the shape of finding Epstein and Martin who believed in them.

    But as far as writers they did what Gerry and The Pacemakers, Rory Storm and many others didn’t do. They wrote lots and lots of songs. Over 200 in 7 years. And having Lennon and McCartney in the same band meant there was a lot of competition and help to finish songs. They inspired Harrison and Jagger and Richards to start writing too…

    Anyway I’m on a 4 year blogging journey to answer these questions – you might like to take a look at Beatles Songwriting Academy – especially the Be-Atletudes!

    http://beatlessongwriting.blogspot.co.uk/p/be-atletudes.html

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    • Thanks Matt. Great site you have there, so I’ll even forgive you for dissing ‘I’ll Get You’ even though you’re right. (My 4 year old daughter sings it to her 18 month old sister so I have a soft spot for it).

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