Hacking The 10,000 Hour ‘Rule’

Hacking The 10,000 Hour ‘Rule’


ack in 2011 when Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, the media fell in love with the idea of the 10,000 Hour Rule. In summary, it pretty much stated that it takes 10,000 hours to become world class in any field.

Since then, there’s been a number of critics of the rule, some gently poking holes or adding on to the idea, while others are downright dismissing it entirely. In fact, it has drawn so much ire in some parts of the media that Gladwell felt the need to respond to the critics himself in a follow-up piece in the New Yorker.

One of the most common misconceptions, is how 10,000 hours has transitioned from being the number of hours needed for becoming World Class to instead being the number of hours needed for becoming an expert. There’s certainly a vast difference between those two levels, at least in my mind.

As I’m sure you can imagine, much of it has become overblown in terms of what Gladwell actually stated and how the media interpreted it. Even so, the idea of a simple number to strive for to reach mastery is an intriguing idea.

But it can also be a major road block for the beginner.

Imagine wanting to dive into a new field or acquire a new skill, but seeing that 10,000 hours hanging over your head. It can be pretty intimidating. Many would probably decide against following their curiosity, simply because they’ll never become ‘good’ at it, so why bother. “I don’t have 10,000 hours to spend on this!”

The truth is, 10,000 hours is a long time and if you’re just exploring something for fun, then you’re unlikely to get there. If you do the math, you have to spend 8 hours every day for about 3 and a half years to become an ‘expert’. That’s approximately 2,920 hours a year. For comparison sake, a full time job comprises of about 2,000 hours a year.

  • At 8 hrs/day it would take about 3.5 years
  • At 4 hrs/day it would take about 7 years
  • At 2 hrs/day it would take about 14 years

I certainly don’t have that much free time on my hand. The good news? You don’t need 10,000 hours to become an expert at something at all. There are actually a lot of variables that come into play with the 10,000 hour rule that makes that number not quite as concrete as it seems.

Natural Talent

I think its clear that some people are better at certain things than other people. That’s the talent portion. There are skills that we just sometimes get to an extent. I’m not saying that practice isn’t required, but having a natural feel or passion for what you’re trying to learn can make it that much easier.


On the other end of the spectrum, how you practice makes a difference as well. Are you multi-tasking and not really putting your full effort into the process of learning? Are you pushing yourself to get better or just doing the same thing repeatedly? Focused or deliberate practice is what will lead you to actually reaching expertise.

Prior Knowledge

Already being proficient at other skills can certainly lower the learning curve for picking up a new skill. Maybe you already know how to play the guitar and want to learn the violin. Or maybe you want to learn French, but you already know Spanish. From technology to the arts, having that related knowledge base decreases the amount of time it would take for an individual to learn a new subject or skill.

Defined Subject/Skill

Much of the research done in this domain is based on skills that are very well defined and have little variation over time. Like becoming a chess grandmaster or a violin virtuoso, there isn’t much wiggle room in how you become the best and what you need to learn. On the other hand, there’s a lot of disorder when it comes to many other fields, like business, technology, and science. Things are always changing and moving, so that 10,000 hours doesn’t fit particularly well and if you can find a niche you can succeed in any of them.

Skill Desired

Finally and most importantly is the actual level of skill that is being sought after. If you’re just trying to be pretty good at something, it certainly doesn’t take anywhere near 10,000 hours. On the other hand, if you want to be the absolute best, it may take far longer than the 10,000 hours. In his book The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman proposes you can pick up the basics of a skill in as little as 20 hours! There’s clearly a sliding scale when it comes to time and proficiency.

For me, this is where the Pareto Principle comes into play.


Pareto-fying The 10,000 Hour ‘Rule’

If you haven’t heard of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 Rule, then you’re missing out on a powerful, yet simple insight.

For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.Pareto Principle

In other words, 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. Here are a few examples of this in action:

  • 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients
  • 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your customers
  • 80% of your engagement comes from 20% of your content
  • 80% of your creativity comes from 20% of your work

You get the picture. Now, what if we put these two together, combining the Pareto Principle with The 10,000 Hour Rule? Let’s see how this could work.



First of all, I’m using an exponential curve here to demonstrate learning. Over time, as you put more effort into learning a subject area or skill you get past the basics and start focusing on the periphery. Learning the things that will give you an edge and demonstrate your understanding of the subject. In this way, there’s a lot to learn at the start, but eventually you begin learning more and more about less and less. This is where true mastery lies, but it is also somewhere many of us may not need to go.

The other concept presented in the graph above is the Asymptote of Omniscience. This is just my fancy way of saying there’s an invisible line that everyone who wants to master something is continuously trying to reach. They’ll never quite get there, as there is no way to know everything about something, but you can get pretty damn close.

What the graph really demonstrates though, is that if you use the Pareto Principle with learning, you can gain the knowledge you seek in 20% of the time or just 2,000 hours. That’s certainly a more attainable goal with the busy lives we live. To use this hack and start learning faster, there are three key steps that need to be taken.

1. Define What You Want To Learn

More often than not, we just start learning without really thinking through what our end goal is. What part of a skill are we trying to attain? There’s probably a specific use case you had in mind when you started exploring the subject in the first place. Think about what accomplishing that use case truly entails, as it drastically cuts down on what you need to learn and can prevent you from wasting time on parts of the topic that may not be relevant to your goals.

2. Identify What You Need To Learn It

What resources do you need to learn this particular skill or subject? Who are the top individuals in the industry that you can learn from? What are the most useful books or courses to take? All of this is just as important as defining what you need to learn. The better materials you use the better your learning experience will be. To use an analogy, if you have a bad teacher, things certainly don’t get any easier.

Also, be aware of your personal learning style and try to leverage it. For example, I’m more visual, while my wife is more auditory. There are different resources that would suit our individual needs better. Learning in general is the best practice to better understand how YOU learn. Once you understand this, you can utilize similar methods and approaches to make your learning experiences more meaningful.

3. Practice Deliberately

With the knowledge of what you want to learn and what you need to learn it, dive in and start practicing and learning. Using deliberate practice and giving your full attention to the subject when you have the time, will get you closer to expertise, far quicker than you could have expected.

If you can follow these three steps, then you can truly unlock the power of the Pareto Principle and make that daunting 10,000 hours a much more manageable 2,000 hours. All of a sudden, things sound a lot more feasible.


Why This Matters

First, it’s important that you know that you can learn to be pretty damn good at anything, faster than you thought. Here I’m saying 2,000 hours, but there’s no real magic number. This hack, while making a ton of sense, isn’t supported by any fancy studies or research papers. The fact is, everything takes practice, but if you enjoy it and take the time to truly understand what you’re trying to learn, it can be far more attainable.

Second, don’t get discouraged by the idea of 10,000 hours. If you want to learn how to do something, go for it! Don’t disregard it because it will take time or that it’s difficult at first. Truthfully, you can become great at any skill, but more importantly the value of understanding how to learn is invaluable and will be an asset throughout life.

And finally, follow your curiosity. When you get excited by a new idea or skill or a field, explore it. I think that things that get you excited are life’s way of giving you a nudge towards the path that you should be following. So don’t ignore it and remember, always be curious.

Image via flickr

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