The 10,000 Hour Rule, Why You Should Ignore It And What You Should Do Instead (especially if you’re in midlife).

What if you could become an expert at anything you wanted? Football, chess, astronomy, you name it. There’s just one little catch. You’d need to devote about 10,000 hours to get there. To put that into perspective, 10,000 hours is the equivalent of three hours every day for ten years.

It’s the 10,000 hour rule and the creation of author Malcolm Gladwell. His premise is that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. He explored the idea in his book Outliers studying the lives of successful people to understand how they achieved success.

You probably know Bill Gates’ story, he dropped out of college to start Microsoft but by then he was no longer a novice, he had already clocked 10,000 hours of practice.

But is the 10,000 hour rule really true?

The research which is the basis of Gladwell’s theory reads slightly differently. Professor Anders Ericsson of the University of Colorado who published the original research says it’s not that cut and dried. True, he found that violin students who had progressed to an elite status had racked up an average of more than 10,000 hours of practice while less accomplished ones had an average of only 4,000 hours. The data showed, however, that although the average was about 10,000 hours some students took more time and others way less.

What accounted for the difference? Was it because some violinists were more gifted?

The assumption would be that if talent played a role then those persons should have attained elite status in less time, but surprisingly, no naturally gifted performers rose to the top. Ericsson’s research wasn’t conclusive as other studies suggested that talent and genetics do play a role.

But what if the 10,000 hour rule were true?

What if natural ability and talent had little to do with your capacity to achieve greatness? What if you could attain mastery through practice and 10,000 hours would get you there?

Now herein lies the rub. The thought of having to invest 10,000 hours in anything especially when you’re just getting started can be daunting. If you’re already in midlife it’s even worse, you probably believe you don’t have time left to even consider such an investment. So instead of being a motivator for action the rule feels like an impossible target. It may even act as a barrier to you starting. 10,000 hours is a lot of time.

So here’s what I think you should do instead.

Forget mastery and focus on improving.

That’s right. Put the 10,000 rule out of your mind and focus on improving just a fraction each day. Figure out what skills you need to acquire or improve on to achieve your goals. Commit to showing up consistently to take action.

And there’s a way to accelerate your development and progress. Consider these three simple strategies/ideas. 

Repetition

Repetition is the mother of learning.

It is how you learned to walk and talk, you used it to learn your multiplication tables and many other things that remain alive and well with you today. It’s such a simple concept but it works because learning something new is all about how you use your memory.

At first the information is stored in your short term memory which is busy trying to figure out how to do what it is you are trying to learn. With repetition, however, proficiency improves and that knowledge now moves into the realm of what is called automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to execute without actually focusing on the minute details needed to get the task done. If you learned to ride a bike and haven’t done so for years, you don’t have to re-learn it every time you get back on a bike.

Practice

‘Practice is learning, but learning is not practice’.

One way to dramatically improve in anything is to put what you learn into practice. Research shows that practicing leads to 75% retention so it is one of the most effective ways to acquire and retain new skills. I like to think of practice as active repetition. You can watch all the TikTok dance videos you want but the only way to improve your dancing is to practice the steps.

Why is practice so effective? Because through practice you will make mistakes but that is exactly what you need to quickly identify what you need to correct. Practice or active repetition moves you very quickly to automaticity.

But not all types of practice are equal. There’s a special type that has been shown to be extremely effective in improving performance and it’s called Deliberate Practice.

Deliberate Practice

This type of practice is focused on pushing your skill set beyond what you are comfortable with. Its specific goal is to improve performance and it challenges you to push your limits. 

Based on the research of Anders Ericsson, Corbett Barr outlines the components of deliberate practice, I’ve listed them below:

  • You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.
  • The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  • You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.
  • You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

Research has found that getting consistent feedback is essential to effective learning and this is another key feature of deliberate practice. Getting feedback and then acting on it to target specific areas for improvement is critical to the effectiveness of the approach.

So how do you move from what is your normal practice routine to deliberate practice? James Clear has a great piece that describes the process of moving from naive practice where you learn the easy stuff  to a level of competency, through to purposeful practice (where you set specific goals, get immediate feedback, push outside our comfort zone) and finally to deliberate practice which is essentially purposeful practice with the addition of a coach or teacher.

Deliberate practice is not meant to be pleasant, it’s full-on and demands sacrifice to get to the next level. It is a big investment so you have to be motivated and committed. It’s what elite performers do.

Teach others

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

According to the National Training Laboratory teaching others shows a 90% rate of retention of the material by the one who is teaching. Why is it so effective? Because you have to truly understand something if you have any hope of being able to clearly articulate to someone else.

Knowing that you have to show someone how to do something is itself a great motivator to acquire and understand the required knowledge. The beauty of teaching is that it does not require that you be proficient, that depends on the audience. The goal is to share what you know, if you’re an expert you have a lot to share, if you’re a novice you have a lot to learn. Either way teaching encourages dialogue, feedback and is a great way to expand our knowledge base. 

It’s never too late to keep improving

Are you a midlifer who wants to become great at something but think it will take too long? Does your goal truly matter to you? If the answer is yes, then isn’t it worth trying to bring it to life? Decide to take that first step and resolve to put in the time and effort required to make it happen. 

Will it take 10,000 hours? Who knows and who cares? Don’t be deterred by how far away your goal is and believe that it’s not too late for you. Focus instead on improving little by little and watch how you move that much closer to the future you want to create.

 

Now over to you.

Are you a midlifer with a big goal but think it’s not possible for you at this stage in your life?

Have you heard about the 10,000 rule and feel intimidated and disheartened by it?

Remember the longest journey starts with a single step.

What is one step you can take today?

Let me know in the comments.

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