Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The 10000 Hour Rule.


This image appeared on my Facebook the other day, and I really liked it. (The quote is killer, and it is available at a much more readable size here.) It reminded me of a bit of wisdom I value greatly, and I'll pass that on in this blog post. Lucky you.

I am a huge fan of the many Rules, Laws, and related discrete wisdom chunks you can find on the Internet. Sturgeon's Law. Poe's Law. Rule 34. (NSFW) The Iron Law of Oligarchy. But one of my favorite, as an important lesson about How the World Works, is the 10000 Hour Rule.

I would describe this law thusly:

To master any non-trivial field requires 10000 hours of dedicated practice and study.

Sometimes, this law is stated with "10 years" in the place of "10000 hours." Or, as an old saying elegantly puts it, "You have to write a million bad words before you can write a good one."

Drawing. Writing. Chess. Singing. Tennis. Designing Games. Acting. Golf. Playing the violin. Leatherworking. Poker. In each case, mastery requires work. A lot of it.

What does this law mean? It means that fantasy you have, about picking up a guitar and finding that you have a deep, innate talent for playing and that you're the next Hendrix? It's just a fantasy. Better get practicing, pal. You got 10 long years of work ahead of you. Free lunch? No such thing.

I Will Now Deal With Your Objections

People don't like this law. People hate to be told that they can't have Free Stuff, and gaining mastery without sacrifice is the epitomy of Free Stuff. But there are several obvious objections people come up with to rebut this law. I will dispose of them now.

It Doesn't Take That Long To Master Something! I Can Master Tic-Tac-Toe in a Minute!

That's why I said it takes 10000 hours to master something non-trivial. Obviously, some things are easy, but nobody cares about whether you can do them. Learning to tie your shoes is much simpler than learning to play the violin, but nobody will pay you to watch you tie your shoes.

What About Child Prodigies? Mozart Was Composing Symphonies When He was Four!

Yeah, but nobody wants to hear them. They want to hear what he wrote later. Many, many hours of work later.

Child prodigies exist, and they can do amazing things. However, the main advantage of being a child prodigy is that you get to start putting in your 10000 hours at an early age. You still have to work for it.

But Some People Have Amazing Innate Abilities!

People need to believe that they can possibly have the innate ability to do amazing things. Some sort of magical penumbra that gives you the supernatural ability to write or play baseball or whatever. Not really.

Now don't get me wrong. Some people do have the innate ability to excel at a field. It is the opportunity, resources, and drive to put in the many, long tedious hours mastering a chosen field. It's the ability (the time, money, and energy) to sit down and work. That's the only innate ability that really means something.

So I Just Have To Spend 10000 Hours On Something and I Become Awesome?

No. It has to be 10000 of meaningful practice. Learning new things. Stretching your ability. Occasionally failing, learning from your mistakes, and improving. Repeating the same lame thing for one hour 10000 times will not cut it.

I've Hardly Spent Any Time At All Learning To Do [X], and I'm Amazing At It!

Are you sure? One of the main reasons people are mediocre at a profession or activity is that they lack the ability to recognize when they have done it poorly. One of the main things successful craftspeople and artists have in common is a loathing of their own work.

I'm not saying you aren't that great. Hey, I've never met you. But are you sure?

It's an Unpleasant Rule

The 10000 Hour Rule is about crushing dreams. It's about understanding that there are limits to what you can do in the all-too-short period of time we spend on this Earth. It's about giving people who have achieved mastery the respect they deserve. It's about, before taking on a new task, honestly evaluating whether we can afford to give what it takes to complete it. And it's about forgiving yourself for not being able to play the guitar like Hendrix.

I have a lot more to say on this subject and how it applies to writing computer games. Next time.

(If you're interested in reading more about this stuff, I've heard that Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a good read. I'm not so much a big Gladwell fan, but it's a very interesting topic.)

44 comments:

  1. 10000 hours of deliberate practice seems easier to me than the need to have 'talent' to excel. Talent is given to a person. Time is everybody gift.

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  2. You're the best, man. Thanks for sustaining me throughout the development of my first game.

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  3. Yeah dude.

    Runners call the 10,000 hour thing "THE TRIAL OF MILES" or "MILES OF TRIALS"

    Basically the only way you get better is by putting in a lot of time, which is pretty damn obvious yet people want shortcuts to avoid doing so.

    But, starting at a high level like say a child prodigy = being praised early on = continuing to work at your craft.

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  4. Bang on. David Beckham's dad took him with a ball to practice from age 4, every day for at least an hour. EVERY DAY - rain or shine. By age 12 he won a skills competition that included 16 year olds. He was then scouted and signed by Manchester United. I imagine he put in the other 5000 or so hours from age 12 to 18. I know most of your viewers likely are not interested in soccer, but watch this video of him scoring in the 93rd min (thats the third min of extra time, which means the final would blow any second) and if he missed, england would not go to the World Cup....

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0GESlaVNdE

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  5. Here's the original source of that quote:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI23U7U2aUY

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  6. Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin is another great work dedicated specifically to this phenomenon. Definitely recommend it - I listened to the audiobook.

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  7. The original study was about violin players and AFAIK there was lots of variance. Like one person docking like 25k hours and not reaching mastery, while another with less than 6k reached it.

    Nonetheless I like this rule and use it as a guideline.

    You might like to hear that there's someone trying this 10k hour thing. He's done over 2k hours of dedicated golf practice: http://thedanplan.com/

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  8. The difficult thing is to get past the 10000 hours doing what you aspire to master.

    BTW keep posting!

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  9. Sometimes it is difficult to get a chance.

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  10. Interesting, allow me to cut down the article to "work for 10,000 hours and you will be rewarded, add some luck and you will become rich!"

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  11. ...Applies to martial arts, too. No surprise there.

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  12. "One of the main things successful craftspeople and artists have in common is a loathing of their own work."

    Well I'm half-way there. I detest everything I've ever written.

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  13. I picked up Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell per your recommendation, and, at least so far, it speaks directly to this same message. Talent, intelligence, genius, passion, etc. are not what create mastery, but rather keep you from giving up before reaching the requisite 10,000 hours.

    I'm both astonished and delighted that Gladwell makes some of the exact same points that you've mentioned on this post, and backs them with a number of eye-opening case studies. You should pick Outliers up as well!

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  14. My "get good enough so it's fun" rule is 3 hours per day for one month. Because: mastery? If it's your job and you need to eat due to it, sure, but otherwise: who cares. Fun? Yes please.

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  15. @Nolithius: the thing I really liked about the Gladwell book is the idea that the 10,000 hours are really *all* that matter, and that what ends up differentiating "stars" from everyone else is simply access to the resources that allow them to get those 10,000 meaningful hours in.

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  16. no amount of practice will give you the "good taste" that Ira Glass mentioned. I believe the 10000 is pretty arbitrary and there is spill over from other related and unrelated activities, including play, that make the measuring difficult.

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  17. @JBHemlock I don't buy it - it's not that simple. I have no doubt that if I did 10,000 hours of anything I'd be somewhat better than with 1 hour's experience. However, I know damn well that the improvement would be radical in some cases and minimal in others.

    The important ability is to know when it's actually worth pursuing something. Dedication without sufficient ability may progress you to good but it will not let you reach great.

    It's also worth considering that 10K hours isn't the important factor - the dividing line is how long it takes to be able to start to devote the resource to pursue your field to mastery. It's not necessary to be Mozart to start making money and pursuing music as your primary job.

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  19. I imagine my life to be a RPG where I level real life skills and crafts. Can't play MMORPG's anymore...

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  22. Good rule but what do you do when you put in that much time and still are not recognized as a master or even an expert?

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  23. look at anyone that's good at anything -- look at Michael Jordan. yes, he was the greatest basketball player ever, and he might be the greatest for longer than we'll be alive or longer, and he is the greatest for one reason: his will. he willed himself to be the greatest through time and preparation and practice. he put in 10000 hours times two. no one say different.

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  25. Well said. I've been trying to tell people this for a long time. Screw talent. Most of the paralympics guys can run faster and do more push-ups than me, none of them were talented.

    What annoys me so much is that there are tons of people in the "fun" industry not willing to put any kind of work. Game development, sports, music, art, culinary, professional poker/chess players. They assume that just because they can't get past basic algebra, and can play a Nirvana song on the guitar at age 14, they're "gifted" in music and "untalented" in math.

    Talent is a big Western myth. I'm creative, and it's not because I was born that way.. it's because I read everything, and get inspiration from reading things outside the box. There are plenty of people more creative than me and they read way more. Creativity doesn't come from some random inspiration or muse, it comes from seeing patterns in another field which you can apply where it's never been done.

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  26. look at anybody that's brilliant at something -- visual element at Michael Jordan. yes, he was the largest basketball participant ever, and he could possibly be the largest for extended than we'll be alive or longer, and he could possibly be the largest for one reason: his will. he willed himself getting the largest by means of your time and preparation and practice. he arranged in 10000 several hours occasions two. nobody say different.
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