The 10,000 hour rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. As we have noted here there were a number of serious problems with the kind of claims made on its behalf, in particular claims that talent is illusory and superior performance is only the result of intensive practice. Now the reservations, previously voiced in academic journals, are beginning to make themselves felt in the popular press. Witness this article in The Washington Post:
“That rule was in turn loosely based on a 1993 study of accomplished violinists in Berlin, which found that the most accomplished students had spent 10,000 hours practicing by the time they were 20 — far more hours than the less accomplished students had spent practicing. Gladwell estimated that the Beatles and Bill Gates had also put in 10,000 hours of practice fiddling with guitars and computers, respectively, by the time they went big.
There’s one problem with this idea: Research suggests it isn’t true. Practice is helpful in improving performance in a variety of fields, from athletics to chess. But it plays a surprisingly small role in determining whether people become virtuosos.”
One of the problems with the way scientific controversies get reported in the media is that the claims swing between extremes. First, we are told that talent doesn’t matter. Later we are told that talent is the only thing that matters.
Ericsson’s work on peak performance has made a real contribution and he has discovered important insights into effective training that may have important implications for education. The 10,000 hour rule is misleading, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.