About Me

My photo
Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, January 2, 2015

How to Cheat the 10,000 Hour Rule

     There has recently been a good amount of crying foul on the so-called 10,000 Hour Rule.  Up until recently, there has been generally wide acceptance of the now-famous concept from Malcolm Gladwell's excellent book Outliers that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to obtain mastery of a given discipline.  It seems that the debunking of this concept currently has as much traction as the original idea, but I think that most of the arguments are not actually disproving the original idea.  There is more of a clarifying of what it takes to obtain mastery, and even more importantly, an illumination of what we mean by practice, and a differentiation between different qualities of practice.

When I first read about the 10,000 hour rule, I attempted to loosely add up my practice time over the years.  It wasn't difficult for me to discover that, even if I was off by a number of years, something special started to happen to my abilities on the saxophone around the 10,000 mark.  I found myself struggling less, and spending more time being creative.  This was the beginning of my career, when I started to really blast off.  I have heard the same story from many people, and although the evidence is completely anecdotal, and obviously influenced by the fame of this "golden number," 10K seems like an entirely reasonable number of hours to achieve a certain level of mastery.

There are interesting things happening right now with electric stimulation of certain areas of the brain to turbocharge learning, and these experiments hold significant promise (and obvious risks), not to mention potentially challenging ethical dilemmas.  There is even speculation that we could someday "download" skills in the style of The Matrix movies.  For our purposes, let's forget about invasive, dangerous, or purely theoretical scientific cheats and just stick to the kinds of things that the average person can accomplish on their own.
  • There is a difference between practice and play
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the difference between practice and play, and how 10,000 hours of doing something poorly would only build a mastery of mediocrity.

Mindless repetition does not build skill.  Good practice involves paying strict attention to details, targeting specific areas for improvement, and constantly assessing and refining.  Good practice is very difficult, and it consumes a whole lot of mental and physical energy.

As a musician, I certainly spent much of my early practice time engaging in what actually is more like play.  I didn't initially set out to be a master.  I just enjoyed making music.  Over time, I became more critical of my abilities and my practice became more efficient and systematic.  It is difficult to ascertain the relationship between play and practice, at least in how they combine in the quest for mastery.  There might be a ratio of the two that yields that "special sauce" to get over the hump from amateur to artist, but in that specific area, there are no studies (at least of which I am aware).

  • Not all skill building starts at zero
I achieved a fairly high level of mastery of the saxophone at a relatively early age, winning a professorship at the age of 27.  But exactly at what point do we start that 10,000 clock?  I started studying the saxophone in the eighth grade, but I had casually played the flute for the previous four years.  I also had taught myself to play the electric organ by ear, and I sang in the church choir (until my angelic soprano was ripped from the clouds by puberty).  Additionally, I was exposed to a significant amount of recorded music, long before I ever picked up an instrument.  By the time I actually picked up the saxophone, I had built a variety of skills, including the ability to form preferences and opinions about sound and music, which is precisely why I switched from flute to saxophone.  This is also how I went from a last-chair flutist in the school band to a career-minded saxophone soloist.  It is probably impossible to clearly define the zero point from where 10,000 hours supposedly should commence.

  • Lessons from the fountain pen
I have recently written about my penmanship adventure, and how I went from a sloppy lefty to a fancy writing right-hander.  

In around six months of disciplined practice, I have attained enough skill with a fountain pen to create some fairly artistic works.  Considering that I could hardly hold the pen in my right hand a mere eight months ago, and that I have clearly not been able to even begin to approach 10,000 hours of practice, I seem to be on track for beating Mr. Gladwell's rule, maybe even whipping it soundly!  At best, I have only amassed a few hundred hours of practice.  How is this possible?

My penmanship practice was loaded from the start, which gave me some big advantages.  Firstly, I had already mastered a certain style of handwriting (and music-writing) with my left hand.  Maybe it wasn't pretty, but it was fast and relatively effortless, which is definitely one definition of mastery.  Secondly, although my right hand had no ability to hold a pen in a manner suitable for writing, it is safe to assume that 30 years of saxophone study gives me more dexterity (in both hands, really) than the average person.

The final factor is, in my opinion, the most important piece of the puzzle.  Almost from day one, my practice was highly focused, and deeply influenced by my rather deep knowledge of the science behind good practice habits.  I started copying vintage penmanship templates, and set aside time to perfect individual letters.  I practiced every day, and while I didn't put in huge numbers of hours, I made every minute count.  I am continually criticizing my daily work, making corrections, and improving my technique.  My rapid progress is not accidental; it is the byproduct of high motivation and superior practice methods.

  • Debunking the 10,000 hour rule?
Before we get all excited about debunking the magic practice number, we need to apply some common sense.  It is entirely plausible that a person can cheat the 10,000 principle, but this is extremely difficult to test, since it isn't even entirely clear when we should start counting.  How many masters of anything begin from a place of zero skill?  What is the relationship between leisurely exploration and disciplined practice?  These aspects are very challenging to measure, and how much energy should we really invest in defining the difference between 5,000 hours and 10,000 hours?  If the 10,000 Hour Rule is a piece of pop psychology, I see the current popularity of its debunking as an even greater cultural artifice.

One thing is clear, successful people practice a lot, and the most successful people tend to have practiced the most.  It is also important to practice well, spending plenty of effort on the struggle against bad habits.  While finding an exact numerical relationship is probably somewhere between impossible and irrelevant, we know that not all practice time is created equally.  At the end of the day, the best advice might be to practice more-better.

Keep practicing!


  1. There's a lot in here. Maybe enough to distract from practice and even play…It could be that for some of us, it's hard to draw a line between practice and play.

    One good thing about play is that it need not be mindless. It can focus on issues and improvement. Being mostly self-taught, I find I am totally engaged, self-assessing, etc. during play, and more mindless when asked to practice "non-musically" (do this thing you can't do 20 times in a row).

  2. And I notice you don't say "keep playing." Maybe you don't have to :)

    1. If you learn to enjoy practicing, you can have your cake and eat it too!