How long does it take to be an expert?

Photo by Scott Ableman
Photo by Scott Ableman

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. He looked at professional hockey players, pianists and composers and said in each case it took them 10,000 hours of practice to get really good.

I’ve always thought practice was more important than talent – I think it looks like you have talent when you like something so much you spend hours and hours on it. The kid that loves baseball, plays every chance he gets and practices on his own. That kid gets good. How good he gets might depend on talent, but either way, he’ll get good.

In Outliers, a book I just started listening to, Malcolm says people have talent but without the 10,000 hours of practice, we’ll never see it.

So how much is 10,000 hours?

At an hour a day, that’s 27 years. At 3 hours a day, it’s still close to 10 years. What do you do for 3 hours a day? If you are like most of us, the only thing you do for 3 hours a day, day in and day out, is something you are paid to do. (So make your job something you enjoy doing!) Although I’d guess there are some free software developers out there who put in a lot of hours “practicing” coding every week regardless of whether they get paid for it.

How long does it take someone with a job to get really good at it? Say you got a job writing code – and you’ve never written code before – and you actually get to code 40 hours a week. (40 hours of coding, not email or meetings.) And you only took two weeks of vacation a year. After 5 years, you would have the potential to be an expert developer. (In the book, Malcolm talks about how people like Bill Gates and Bill Joy got their coding experience – he thinks experts are people that got the opportunity to practice 10,000 hours.)

So next time you admire someone for their skills and say “I could never do that” – stop and think. Did you give it the 10,000 hours?

6 Replies to “How long does it take to be an expert?”

  1. Very insightful. What you say in my opinion is only true for stuff that can be practiced: Artisanry. On the other hand, we also have creativity and a basic character which do not seem to be trainable, at least not arbitrarily.
    Let’s stick with sports: Even after practicing the whole life, some baseball players are better then others. This can only be explained by their characteristic way of playing that can not be bent, i.e. their personality (including physical pre-conditions). And some keep producing better ideas than others, i.e. their creativity is higher.

  2. Stormy, please note that Malcolm Gladwell is not a scientist; he’s a journalist and a borderline quack. His work may be based on real research (by others), but he then does all kind of wild extrapolations that somehow fit his narrative. So it’d be good to be very skeptical, no matter how nice his theories sound.
    For example, this 10K number is a bit suspicious — it can’t possibly apply to anything. Say you want to be an expert Unix programmer. Part of that is becoming an expert in using vi, emacs or whatever, expert in writing Makefiles etc., a couple of other things, and then all the Unix-specific stuff. So either becoming an expert Unix programmer takes more than 10K hours, or any of the parts take less than 10K hours — all of which invalidate the 10K-law. I know I am being pedantic here – but I just want to wem that the kind of pop-psy that Gladwell brings should be taken with a big grain of salt.

  3. I agree, it all has to be taken with a grain of salt. My main point is that it takes practice to be really good at something. I think we tend to think that people are just naturally good, and we envy them, when in reality it took a lot of hard work to get that good.

  4. I agree that talent varies. It’s unlikely I’d ever be an opera singer no matter how many hours I worked at it. That said, my point was that without practicing your whole life, you won’t be good at it.

  5. It’s pretty funny Stormy, because I’m reading this book right now. This rule of thumb apply to many things, especially tasks where patterns happen.
    Coding : lots of patterns.
    I’m a 10 years juggler, around 4000 hours of practice, and I’m still not an expert, but technically much better than “amateur”. I can manage to juggle up to 5 clubs and 6 balls. Professionals get with 10 000 hours most juggling patterns up to 7 balls, 5/6 clubs (if they get into this prop), 3 diabolos. If they are more specialised, they even juggle more stuff.
    Nonetheless, IMHO, this is only a quantitative measure. In juggling, talent and technical skill doesn’t mean you make a good show… You need as well drama, being generous and giving something to people, telling stories. And this can take forever to dive in – because playing for theater means you have to ask for yourself who you are, to accept your failures, … But once you think about it, it’s not a matter of 10 000 hours.
    Stormy, would you say this book is a must have ? Do you think you would reread it, at some point in the future ?
    My 2 cent,

  6. I’m just into the intro, so I can’t say how good the book is overall. And I rarely reread books so I doubt I’d reread it. I prefer to take notes or blog it or talk to friends about it and learn from it that way.

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