The 10,000 Hours Myth

I begin by quoting renowned American neurologist Daniel Levitin:

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals… this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

This 10,000 hour theory proposed by pop social science authors (not just Levitin) is enormously empowering, but comes with a big problem. Sitting and working on a single skill set for a given amount of time will make you good, perhaps even excellent. To dominate that ability requires something else: critical thinking. It is not a magic formula where studying a law school book for hours on end transforms you into a powerhouse lawyer. Nor will sitting in front of a piano diligently practicing scales will not turn you into concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Such disciplines are only a part of the equation. Taking responsibility for your own success and failure becomes essential. You must craft yourself, demand the best of your abilities, and most importantly, know when to rest.

In a world of degree plan sheets and major studies programs with award-winning institutions and minor experts in a myriad of subjects, whatever happened to the concept of the individual taking responsibility for their own future? One doesn’t have to read self-help books to come to the conclusion that the stars of our culture always have a point where they actively worked on their own behalf in an effort to achieve something significant. I have had numerous conversations with university professors today who speak of teaching a new generation that believes in an entitlement, a degree of privilege where the people around them should be predisposed to helping them win out. This is the counter-idea of what I am standing for. Until a person chooses to take responsibility for crafting their own image, disposition, and abilities, they will always have an excuse for something or someone around them who didn’t give enough efforts to make them into a winner. Only you have the power to shape yourself—we can give the power away, discount it, ignore it, and otherwise mar it, but its absolute potential remains for anyone willing to use it.

When I look at highly successful people from musicians to athletes to investors and businessman, I see the individual fruit of concrete decisions made to work consistently towards a specific end. This is the second mistake of the 10,000 hours myth: a blurry image of an ultimate outcome is sufficient as long as the hourly quota is met. I remember being told once upon a time that I should aim for the moon and if I miss, at least I will land among the stars. Closing your eyes with hard work and aiming for a positive outcome is not enough! So many people decide to work towards a goal with the attitude that if their goal happens they will be happy and if not they will at least have worked towards a noble cause. You must expect the goal as positively inevitable; come hell or high water, rain or shine, you will achieve the dream.

When Novak Djokovic won his first Wimbledon tournament and Grand Slam title this year, he crouched down on Center Court, reached down, plucked some blades of grass and shoved them in his mouth. He later said, “I felt like an animal. I wanted to see how it tastes. It tastes good,” with eyes wide and his smile contagious. “It came spontaneously, really. I didn’t plan to do it. I didn’t know what to do for my excitement and joy.” If you turned off the TV or left the stadium at center court at that point you might have thought that it was a young man celebrating the completion of a dream. And of course it was, he had just beat ace Spaniard Rafael Nadal, a tennis force in his own right. But if you paid attention to the final interview before he left court, you also would have heard him speak of the completion of a goal he had been focused ever since he watched Wimbledon on TV as a young boy in Serbia. He knew all along what he wanted.

Finally, for all the importance of hard work, life without rest and celebration is impossible. Try and recognize that working fast and efficiently is not like sprinting a marathon (a ridiculous endeavor for me, perhaps not Boston Marathon master Geoffrey Muttai, 2:03:02). Success is built on small, positive actions taken on a consistent basis over a lengthy period. Stop and appreciate the unexpected that will almost certainly occur along the way. It’s part of what makes us human after all. When you’re on, you must be on. But when you rest, take the moment!

4 thoughts on “The 10,000 Hours Myth”

  1. Inspiring, Jacob! I’m glad you are seeing the benefit or rest as well as the required hard work you are giving to your saxophone career/education/experience. I / we would do well to heed your advice on both counts. Congratulations on your acceptance to the music conservatory in Bordeaux!

  2. Jacob,

    Great post, but one question. What happens to the many who aspire to become great at a given activity, they pour their heart and soul into it, diligently put in time to hone their craft, and never achieve their goal? In truth these people outnumber the Djokovic’s of the world. I would offer that life is not about arriving at the goal, as satisfying as it is to see a long-term goal achieved. Instead, I would offer that life is about the journey (cliche, I know, but true), as true success or failure in life is determined by how we live our daily lives, and not by whether we achieve our long-term goals.

    We are coming up on the 5 year anniversary of Tayleene and I operating Scraps. Before beginning on that endeavor we prayed for wisdom: wisdom on whether to do it, and then wisdom on how to do it. When we were part way through the beginning stages a good friend made the following comment: “Don’t judge your accuracy in following the will of God by whether or not the business succeeds or fails”. Ultimately I judge my success by my intentions and my heart. If I have sought the Lord with all my might then I have succeeded, even if natural things may say I have failed. If I loved others as I am loved then I succeeded. You see, the Lord’s goals go so much higher than our own that we have to go above and beyond what our natural senses tell us. Only when we have learned, or begun to learn, to align our goals with His can we begin to put stock in natural results, but even then we do so with peril.

    I am likely not saying anything that you don’t already know, but I figured I’d open my big mouth and say it anyway!


    1. Mark, I think you’re spot on here. Actually, my teacher majorly shot this idea down for me when I moved to France. I had a bulletin board set up of all the places I wanted to play concerts around the world. I decided to throw it away because I realized I was putting a cap on my imagination. Working to be famous is a waste of time. Many people chase it, but they do so for the sake of itself. I now find it to be an empty fulfillment. So, I just try and get a little better each day. If great opportunities happen, I’ll be ready. If nothing happens, I’ll still sleep at night!

      1. That’s awesome! At the end of the day, if I have sought the Lord with all my heart, soul and strength then I will have loved my family well, treated others with respect and brought glory to His name. Because I strive for this every day, like you said, I sleep well at night!


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