More informative was the range of hours

Tuesday, April 27th, 2021

David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene) the original research behind what we now know as the 10,000-hour rule:

For a 1993 study, three psychologists turned to the Music Academy of West Berlin, which had a global reputation for producing world-class violinists.

The academy professors helped the psychologists identify ten of the “best” violin students, those who could become international soloists; ten students who were “good” and could make a living in a symphony orchestra; and ten lesser students they categorized as “music teachers,” because that would be their likely career path.


All of the musicians from all three groups had started taking systematic lessons at around eight years old, and all had decided to become musicians around fifteen. And, despite their skill differences, the violinists from all three groups dedicated a whopping 50.6 hours each week to their music skills, whether taking music theory classes, listening to music, or practicing and performing.

Then a major difference surfaced. The amount of time that the violinists in the top two groups spent practicing on their own: 24.3 hours each week, compared with 9.3 for the bottom group.


By age twelve, the best violinists had a head start of about 1,000 hours on the future teachers.

And even though the top two groups were spending identical amounts of time on their craft at the academy, the future international soloists had accumulated, on average, 7,410 hours of solitary practice by age eighteen, compared with 5,301 hours for the “good” group, and 3,420 hours for the future teachers.

“Hence,” the psychologists wrote, “there is complete correspondence between the skill level of the groups and their average accumulation of practice time alone with the violin.”

By age 20, the top-tier music students had accumulated an estimated 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the kind that is often done in solitude.

Chess players follow a similar pattern:

Campitelli and Gobet found that 10,000 hours was not far off in terms of the amount of practice required to attain master status, or 2,200 Elo points, and to make it as a pro. The average time to master level in the study was actually about 11,000 hours — 11,053 hours to be exact — so more than in Ericsson’s violin study. More informative than the average number of practice hours required to attain master status, however, was the range of hours.

One player in the study reached master level in just 3,000 hours of practice, while another player needed 23,000 hours.


For the chess players, differences in progress showed up right away. “If you look at those players who go on to be masters and those who remain below that level,” Gobet says, “some of them have the same practice the first three years, but there were already large differences in performance.

Looking at it with a tad more statistical sophistication, he quips, “Somehow, the 7,000-to-40,000-hours rule just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”


  1. Kirk says:

    I think Isegoria just posts idiotic things like this to get a rise out of me, sometimes…

    Repeat after me, folks: Correlation does not equal causation. Say it again and again, until it is engrained in your mental pathways, because every time someone tries filling your head with this sort of bullshit, you need to have this at the forefront of your mind. Just because you observe something common to a class, that does not necessarily mean that the thing you’re observing actually, y’know, has anything at all to do with the characteristics of that class that you’re observing.

    Sure, truly great artists and experts in many fields spend a lot of time practicing and actually doing that thing they do. However, comma… Huge ‘effing comma, that does not mean that just anyone can take up that skill or subject of expertise and somehow attain that same level of skill via repetition and long hours of work at that “thing”, whatever it might be.

    There has to be some actual underlying affinity or ability in order for all that practice to actually have any effect whatsoever. And, if there is no such underlying skill or talent? What does all that practice have to work on? What satisfaction does the practitioner gain from it?

    Typically, your true “masters” are going to be people who had to struggle, at least a little bit, with the thing they’re masters of. The “naturally talented” are not going to have the interest, because whatever it is they’re “naturals” at will pose no challenge, trigger no interest. Their natural talent or bent will simply be something that they do, and because they had to do no real work or put forth any effort at it, it will generally never catch their interest as anything other than an amusing avocation.

    I’ve seen this time and time again over the course of my life, and the observation has yet to be disproven by any actual person I’ve met. The most egregious case of it was a guy I met and worked around for years in the Army, who was a complete and utter “natural” with any instrument he picked up. The usual course of things was that he’d wander around somewhere, seeking entertainment, find a musical instrument of some sort, pick it up, and within minutes he’d be making music with it well enough that professional musicians that had spent their lifetimes mastering the damn thing would simply not believe he’d never seen one before that day. I watched him do that more than just the one time, too–And, in person. He had a natural talent for making music, and an ability to mimic that flatly blew the mind of everyone that ever observed him doing that.

    But, see, here’s the thing: It was literally too easy for him. No challenge, no pleasure derived from it, other than just amusing his circle of friends. To his mind, since it was something that he’d just always been able to do, without effort, he didn’t care about it at all. He was the despair of every band leader he ever performed in front of, because they could never get him to do more than fill in for some missing band member or show up for anything other than by purest accident. I watched him “fill in”, once–The saxophonist for a band broke their arm after falling off the stage, he walks over, has a minute with the band and the instrument, and played it well enough that nobody in the audience had the first ‘effing clue that he wasn’t the regular saxophonist. It was only like the second or third time he’d ever had one in his hands, and he did well enough with it that the rest of the band wanted him to replace their regular guy permanently.

    You don’t have the motivation to spend 30,000 hours at doing something you find easy. There’s no challenge, no satisfaction to it. And, on the obverse? If there’s no underlying knack or talent for it at all, no amount of practice is ever going to make you more than a massive annoyance with whatever it is you’re trying to do.

    The thing all these idiots ought to be looking at is to find that sweet spot where there’s enough of the “underneath” to enable someone to get really good, and yet enough of the “struggle” for them to gain sufficient satisfaction from the challenge in order to motivate them enough to take up that skill or lifework in the first place. People do not do the things that they find easy and effortless–Such things rarely offer them any real satisfaction or motivate them enough to rise to the top of their field.

    Your mileage may vary, but I’d be amazed to find any actual exceptions to this truism. Look around you at all the people you know–How many “naturals” do you know that are doing that thing they’re gifted at for a living and who are really, truly happy at it? There’s a sweet spot along the curve of natural ability and natural incompetence at something which allows you to feel challenged enough by it to become really interested, really hooked on it, to the point where you’re going to do Tiger Woods sorts of obsessively/compulsive things in pursuit of perfection.

    I know a guy whose golfing has become this, for him–He knows he’s never, ever going to be a master at it, but he golfs because it is a challenge for him, and he gains satisfaction from his little triumphs and growth at the sport. There’s another guy we both know, who only golfs if you put a gun to his head. That sonuvabitch is the most aggravating person any of his circle of golfing friends know, because the few times they’ve managed to drag him out to the course, he’s put in performances with borrowed gear that have everyone convinced that they’ve brought in a pro-level ringer. He pissed off a tournament committee to the point where they had a formal investigation and hired someone to look into where this dude had golfed professionally in the past. No joy; he had zero record of ever having done more than golf as a very occasional amateur. Which left that tournament committee muttering about “witness relocation”, and trying to figure out if there were ever any pro-level golfers who’d fallen foul of the Feds and gotten relocated.

    You rarely do what you’re good at. Instead, you do the things that you find challenging, and which you can get good at. There’s no amount of practice or effort that will ever make my tone-deaf ass a concert violinist, but someone who has the basic minimum of talent at that…? Yeah; 30,000 hours of practice will make them something to be impressed by.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I do delight in getting a rise out of you, Kirk — but there’s not enough challenge in it for me to devote thousands of hours.

  3. Kirk says:

    LOL… Well played, my friend… Well played.

  4. Contaminated NEET says:

    I remember when this 10,000 hour thing was showing up all over popular culture about 10 or 15 years ago. It struck me then and it still strikes me know as blank-slater propaganda. Nobody has any natural talents or deficits – it’s all about putting in the time, and Science! has now scientifically determined that “the time” is 10,000 hours. Listen up, moms: your dear little Brayden Jaden Beybladen could be a composer, an athlete, a physicist – anything you want him to be – provided you make him practice this amount.

  5. Kirk says:


    Yeah, I think that that’s what irked me the most about the whole deal… You’d hear parents telling their kids “Yeah, you just need to do more practice, and you’ll get good at it…”.

    Which is a crock. No amount of work is going to make a blind person see, and if that blind person is trying for a career in the visual arts, well… Yeah. Won’t be happening, no matter how many hours they put in applying paint to canvas.

    I resent this crap because it leads to a lot of miserable people who keep beating their heads on walls, trying to be something that they just aren’t. If you’ve got no talent for music, there’s no amount of practice that’s going to somehow “fix” that issue. You can spend all the time you want to trying to be a dancer, but if you’re completely uncoordinated and lack any sense of rhythm, you’re not going to experience a lot of success as a dancer. You may get better at it, but… Yeah. You have no future at the Bolshoi, no matter how much time you put in at the studio.

    If there were anything to this “quantity of practice leads to success at anything”, we wouldn’t have to spend all the time we do out looking for talent and recruiting it. You’d just take your average Joe Schmoe, and then put a figurative gun to their heads and make them practice, practice, practice. No need to find the next Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, you just roll your own out of whoever you’ve got.

    The fact that you can’t do this, and don’t see anyone trying it should tell you all you need to know about the whole “Just practice enough, you’ll get good enough to be a pro…” idea. It’s mostly bullshit, and the sort of bullshit calculated to ruin a lot of people’s lives and make them very unhappy and unsuccessful. Good God, if that crap really worked, there’d be all kinds of stage mother success stories, and countless cases where Dad’s sports enthusiasm turned the kids into superstars. And, while there have been some notable cases where that’s been true, look at the sheer number of kids who didn’t wind up becoming Tiger Woods or one of the Williams sisters. If the base talent potential is there, yeah… A ton of practice can have great results. Tiger Woods dad made Tiger what he is, but if Tiger had had no proclivity or talent for golf, that would have been one miserable-ass childhood for him.

    This crap is pernicious bullshit that needs to be called out whenever its brought out. I don’t care how much time you spend trying, if there isn’t something to build off of, it ain’t happening.

  6. Sam J. says:

    “Correlation does not equal causation…”

    But it can be a strong hint.

    Not that I believe practice can do everything for everyone. It doesn’t hurt though.

  7. Kirk says:

    Sam J.,

    If they ever left it at “Well, it’s a hint…”, I’d never have a problem with it. The trouble is, they never, ever do–Once they find correlation, it’s like holy writ for most of modern academia to leap to a conclusion about cause, and then publish.

    And, most of them are so sloppy with the statistics that even a sort-of read layperson will be able to pick apart the basic premises and math, if they bother to actually publish and do a press release on either one. Which they don’t.

    Here’s my rule of thumb, with these things: The harder it is to find the raw data and the information about the experiment or study itself, the less likely it is to actually, y’know, “be what it says it is on the tin”. They’re trying to hide something? It’s almost certainly bullshit.

    Most “science” these days is nothing of the sort; it’s actually sciencism, and it’s too damn bad that L. Ron Hubbard already used the term that he did for his religion, because it would be perfect to describe most of the bullshit emanating from our sadly diminished scientific community. It’s not science; it’s “faith-based secular wishful thinking”, and about as “scientific” as any other proselytizing religion relying on faith and “revealed truth”. When your basic operating principles are essentially the same as the early Christian church or any other start-up cult, you have a problem when it’s labeled “science”.

  8. Lucklucky says:

    Ten thousand hours for those that have propensity to said discipline.

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