The “10 000 hour rule” has been bouncing around scientific circles since the 1970s, but was popularised more recently by Malcolm Gladwell‘s bestselling book, “Outliers”. Gladwell pointed to this rule as evidence that great accomplishment is not about natural talent, but instead about being in the right place at the right time to accumulate such a massive amount of practice. Some research that has been carried out has found that some people can spend 10 000 hours working on their craft and still remain mediocre. Is there something beyond the “10 000 hour rule” that is the key to excellence?
In 2005, a research team lead by Neil Charness, a psychologist from Florida State University, published the results of a decades-long investigation of the practice habits of chess players. Chess is an excellent place to understand the science of how people get good at something. It provides a clear definition of your ability through your ranking, and it is really difficult. Charness’s research team studied over four hundred players from around the world in an effort to understand why some were better than others. They re-created a timeline of each player’s development and chess instruction. The study focused not just on how long people worked but also what type of work they did.
Charness’s study found that the key to excellent chess players was what type of practice they did. The players who pushed past mediocre focused on difficult activities, carefully chosen to stretch your abilities where they most need stretching and that provide immediate feedback. This style of serious study is known as “deliberate practice”, a term coined by Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s. “Deliberate practice” can be formally defined as an activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.
Follow up studies have since shown that “deliberate practice” provides the key to excellence in a diverse array of fields among which are: chess, medicine, auditing, sports, dance, music, computer programming, and many more. If you want to understand the source of any individual’s talent, look to their practice schedules. Almost without exception, you will find they have been systematically stretching their abilities, with the guidance of some form of expert coach, since they were very young. It is a lifetime accumulation of “deliberate practice” that again and again ends up explaining excellence.
Most people who start as active professionals in any field, change their behaviour and increase performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. If you just show up and work, you will soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you will fail to get any better. In most types of work that don’t have a clear training philosophy, most people are stuck. To successfully adopt a craftsman’s mindset, you must approach your job with a dedication to “deliberate practice”. You always need to be improving, it’s a constant learning process. Stretch your abilities by taking on projects beyond your current comfort zone. Finally, you must obsessively seek feedback from colleagues and professionals, on everything, because that is how you will know whether you are growing or not.