Outliers? The Myth of the 10,000 Hours Rule

neutralFollowing the “Outliers” book by Malcom Gladwell, some people are convinced that if they “just” invest 10,000 hours in something they will become really good at it. I think that this is not always the case. I don’t believe any person is able to invest 10,000 hours in anything he/she decides. I believe that challenging activities require special aptitude. And I think there are situations in which someone may spend lots of time stuck in some place, doing the same mediocre job for years. Like driving in neutral while pressing down the gas…

Question:  Can you just decide to invest 10,000 hours in anything you feel attracted to?

I believe you can only invest a lot of time in some activity if you really enjoy doing it. And I also believe that you can really enjoy an activity only if you got some talent in performing it. In other words, if you don’t have the innate ability to do some activity you will not be able to enjoy it, and thus even if you try you will simply quit much earlier than you expect.

You certainly know people who have tried all kinds of activities and then decided to quit after a relatively short period of time. And you probably also have your own personal experience of trying to do something and then deciding to quit. That may be trying to learn a foreign language, trying to play some musical instrument, trying to exercise more frequently or even trying to write your own blog.

If you had these experiences, you can ask yourself why you decided to quit. Was learning a foreign language more difficult than you expected? Was playing a musical instrument less fun than you thought? Did you enjoy exercising more frequently? Did you feel satisfaction from your blog writing?  If you decided to quit, this probably means that for these particular activities you did not have enough talent to enjoy and persevere.

One case in point is that of College drop-outs. It’s clear that if a person chose some profession is because he/she felt attracted to it, and was ready to invest a lot of time learning it, believing that with the right amount of dedication and effort success was guaranteed. However, statistics show that 33% of the students drop-out of College. Of course some of these students may have personal reasons to drop-out, such as health problems, but for most of them the reality was different from their expectations, and they simply decided to quit.

Question: May you invest 10,000 hours and still see no improvement?

I believe people can get stuck in some position, for example performing the same job for years without any personal progress or improvement in their competencies. Unfortunately, this probably happens more frequently than it should, since after a certain age people may have very limited opportunities to try something new. So they simple continue doing the same mediocre job they did in the past, because this is the only thing they know.

This phenomenon is known as the “Peter Principle”:

“In a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their ‘level of incompetence’), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions.”

The Peter Principle has two corollaries:

“In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

“Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

These people who have reached their levels of incompetence are probably not enjoying their jobs anymore. But they will continue working because they are being paid and they may not have any other alternative. So in this case they may actually spend 10,000 hours doing something, not enjoying it and not improving.

In Summary:

  • Aptitude is required: To invest 10,000 hours doing some activity you must enjoy it, and to enjoy it you need talent.
  • No guarantee of success: If people reach their incompetence level they may spend 10,000 hours doing the same mediocre job, not enjoying it and not improving.

People like to believe that if they work hard enough they can become very good at anything they want. I think that people should first understand what are the few things they are already good at, and then work hard to become even better.

What do you think? Do you agree or do you have different experiences?

About Hayim Makabee

Veteran software developer, enthusiastic programmer, author of a book on Object-Oriented Programming, co-founder and CEO at KashKlik, an innovative Influencer Marketing platform.
This entry was posted in Efficacy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Outliers? The Myth of the 10,000 Hours Rule

  1. Luke Teyssier says:

    If you read The Peter Principle carefully, you will also realize that the author describes how job roles change as a person gets promoted. A good engineer with excellent hard skills may not be so good at managing, which requires soft skills. A great people manager may not be so good at C level management which requires extreme political skill. Or she may just need to spend _another_ 10,000 hours of interested, dedicated time learning how to do it well. Generally, it’s not that you gave a person more and more challenging tasks in their area of skill, it’s that you changed their job description without retraining them to do something that they are not skilled at. This is why most managers in hard-skill professions suck at managing people. Many organizations (I suspect most) fail to recognize that Management of people is a separate and distinct skill from being a good craftsperson in a technical or non-technical profession; This is where they go wrong and get a bunch of managers that piss off and drive away the workers. All job changes, especially promotions, require re-training.

    • Thanks for your comment, Luke, I agree with you. I think most people understand that they need to acquire new skills in order to make progress in their careers, and this explains the proliferation of MBAs. However, as you say, it should be the responsibility of organizations to train their employees when they are promoted.

    • dandouglas says:

      I will say that I don’t believe promotions should require re-training. The people who are being promoted should be the ones who are already doing most of the new job already. Training should be given prior to them taking the job, if it’s needed as well. For example: The guy who is understanding the aspects of the business and is building good relationships with the team and stakeholders and is able to clearly lead direction in software development, may be a better choice to bring up the leadership chain than someone else who is more technically minded, but shows less willingness to step up and be a leader.

  2. Pedro says:

    I think you’re completely right, Hayim. People have been confusing correlation and causality here. People who are talented enough to be able to enjoy carrying out a certain activity are also those most likely to spend those 10,000 hours carrying out that activity.

    • Thanks, Pedro! I’ve added this final sentence to the post: “People like to believe that if they work hard enough they can become very good at anything they want. I think that people should first understand what are the few things they are already good at, and then work hard to become even better.”

  3. dandouglas says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Outliers is on my list, but I haven’t read it yet.

    But, we need to distinguish productive hours vs passive hours. Putting effort into something vs idling by doing your “job”.

    There are a lot of assumptions that people are striving for something they don’t want to be. I would like to see other options explored. Fear of change, fear of reaching out and trying to be the best at what they are good at and what interests them.

    For example, the manager who is at a position where he shouldn’t be probably has better aptitude for something better, but is not willing to change because of career risk, fear, potential pay cut. Sure, he is putting in hours, but they are passive hours. He is putting passive hours in, but not really improving.

    I don’t believe that passive hours in a job really counts towards putting 10,000 hours into something. I would think most people who are willing to put 10,000 productive hours into something have some interest and aptitude for it.

    Other people just get bored and won’t make it to anywhere near 10,000 hours.

  4. Pingback: Finding your purpose in life | Effective Software Design

  5. Green Monkey says:

    I’m not sure unmatched expectations are the main reason for dropping out of college. Often it is the case that better opportunities come along and you just choose a different path. This is definitely the case for super successful dropouts like Jobs.

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