HR & Personal Development

Here's what almost everybody gets wrong about the 10.000-hour rule

How deliberate practice, top-to-bottom thinking, feedback loops and flight of ideas are connected to success. And the explanation of why I'll never excel at French.

In high school I had a great advantage compared to my classmates in our French lessons, because I'd had the exact same curriculum the year before. But my advantage didn't last throughout the year. Which I have pondered and regretted ever since. And I finally found the answer to this in Daniel Goleman’s book "Focus".

As it turns out, I'm not the only one who's been thinking about what it takes to become successful, to be considered an expert. It's occupied psychologists for decades. Within recent years the 10.000-hour rule has circulated in popular psychology. The idea is that this is the amount of hours you have to invest in training to become a genius in any given subject. But in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence acclaimed psychologist Daniel Goleman rejects the 10.000 hour rule in favor of the more complex truth that lies beneath the known rule of thumb.

How you use the 10.000 hours is important

The problem with the 10.000-hour rule is that it only represents half the truth. It matters how you train.  If you use the 10.000 hours practicing golf, but make the same mistakes again and again, you won't be at the top of the world rankings. You'll still be a somewhat poor golfer – just 10.000 hours older.

It turns out, that the secret behind success isn't the amount of training hours, but the quality of time spent. Whether you are able to challenge yourself and continuingly correct your mistakes. What researchers call deliberate practice. Deliberate practice implies that you are fully concentrated on your training and don't just spend your time. To gain the full effect the training is often complemented with guidance by an expert, trainer or coach. To put it briefly, deliberate practice can be summoned up to be the difference between quality and quantity.

In his book, Goleman calls this kind of practice “Smart Practice”. As Goleman says in Focus: The many hours of practice ARE necessary but not sufficient if you want to reach the top. The research that paves the way for the 10.000-hour rule showed, that besides practicing 10.000 hours, the best violinists did this under the skillful guidance of great teacher, fully concentrated on improving one specific part of their play at any one time.

Goleman identifies another important element in the recipe for success: Feedback loops. A feedback loop makes it possible to spot your mistakes and correct them, like the ballet dancers use a mirror when they practice. Ideally this feedback comes from an expert. That's why all the best athletes have a coach. Without this feedback you cannot reach a world class level.

This sort of concentration requires a top to bottom focus. This means focusing on reflected action rather than daydreaming, or as Goleman calls it: Flight of ideas.

While the top to bottom thinking is a necessity for your practice, the bottom to top system of the flight of ideas is working against it. To gain full effect from your practice you have to use all of your attention. If you watch TV while you practice, you'll never reach the highest level.

Full concentration can increase the brain’s speed of processing, strengthen the synaptic connections and expand or create neural networks for that which we practice.”

Are you satisfied with “ok”?

But only to a certain degree. As soon as you master a new routine, repeated practice changes this ability from being placed in the intentional top to bottom system to being placed in the automatic bottom to top system, which makes the execution of the routine untroubled.

And this is where the professionals differentiate themselves from the amateurs. If you're satisfied with “ok”, your abilities won't develop further and you reach a plateau. Professionals, on the other hand, keep pushing themselves away from this bottom to top automation by consciously changing their focus to another area where they can improve. Their top to bottom focus works against the brain’s desire to automate routines.

And this is definitely what happened with my French abilities in high school. I felt that I'd gotten “good enough”. If I were to get better, it required a focused effort that my 17-year-old self wouldn't make.