10,000 hours to mastery?

The idea that 10,000 hours of the right kind of work leads to mastery of a complex skill is a Hypothesis.  Not fact. Not established theory. I would like it to be true, but unfortunately that is not enough to make it true.  And in the world of music there are already far to many people ready to deceive themselves that what they would like to be true is really the truth. So I would not like anyone to get the idea that I am a fanatical believer in the idea.  But we should all know about it, and if we are going to dismiss it then it should be for some sounder reason than that it doesn’t fit with our existing ideas and beliefs.

There exist both evidence and  arguments in its favour, but there are also arguments against.  In fact in Ericson’s original book on the subject the last of the 15 papers argues that the evidence and logic for this hypothesis is flawed.  Unfortunately for opponents of the idea some of the contrary arguments, at least as presented in that particular paper,  are badly flawed themselves.  For example it asserts that the idea contradicts “common sense”.  That is no counter argument at all. A lot of so-called common sense is no more than unquestioned beliefs that we grew up with. If mankind followed only common sense we would never have arrived at our present understanding of the Physics and Chemistry of the natural world. That knowledge contravenes “common sense” at every turn.

However, there are (at least) two serious counter arguments.  One is that there are flaws in the evidence cited in support of the hypothesis. It does not include the countless people who have invested many hours of deliberate practice yet have achieved little.  So in music, looking only at those that have reached a conservatory, or who have passed the higher Grade exams, ignores huge numbers of drop-outs.  It is a variety of confirmation bias.

Another, more pertinent, methodological error concerns the nature of scientific knowledge. If you are a follower of Popper’s view of scientific method the key question to ask is “What evidence would DISPROVE the hypothesis”. It is not easy to see how to make a prediction based on the 10,000 hour theory that would disprove it if false, and that is also testable. But we may not have to devise such an experiment.  It is possible that the idea is already weakened by an existing counter-example. There is a study of students of advanced mathematics, where, beyond a certain minimum, the level of achievement and understanding is inversely correlated with the amount of work.  Briefly – those with mathematical “talent” grasp the advanced stuff with little effort.  Those without the talent can put in any amount of work they – will never get it. Of course this is not conclusive either.  It might be failure to learn some necessary pre-requisite, rather than lack of “mathematical talent” , that halts progress.  And no amount of work will help if it is applied in the wrong place or the wrong way.

So it seems that there is not so much we can say for certain! All we can say is that exceptional ability rarely, if ever, develops without doing a lot (there is some evidence for 10,000 hours)  of the right kind of work (misleadingly labelled ‘deliberate’ practice), and that maybe exceptional talent (whatever that might be) is necessary … (and then again … maybe not). So why am I such advocate of hard work, and why do I not believe that in exceptional musicians we see  the easy and natural unfolding of innate talent? For at least three reasons:

  1. None of us can do much about whatever basic equipment we have acquired through our inherited genes and our early development.  This might change as we learn to insert new genes into fully grown bodies in the future, or to turn genes on and off at will, but for now we are stuck with the genes we were born with, and the way they are expressed. We also have to start from the way our brains have been shaped by whatever experiences our lives have given us up to now.
  2. Music is not like some sports where you can often make some fairly reliable predictions of future success based on inherited factors.  If your father is 5 feet tall and your mother is 4 foot 9 you can forget any hopes of becoming a champion heavyweight boxer. If you are well over six feet tall, with a trim physique, and weigh in at 100 kg then you are never going to outrun a little Ethiopian athlete in the marathon, but you might do well in the pool in the 100m crawl – if you have the right ratio of leg to upper body, your shoulders are broad, your chest is wide, rather than deep, and you have plenty of fast twitch fibers in your muscles.  Even in such relatively simple sports there are plenty of examples of seeming no-hopers that confounded everyone’s expectations by working hard and becoming champions.  So far as I know, there are no simple predictors of Musical potential.  The only way I know of to find out if you are capable of becoming good at playing the piano is to learn to play it, and see what results.
  3. Neither rapid improvement in the early stages nor the ability to learn independently without a teacher are reliable indicators of how far you can potentially go. The slow starter, and slow learner might eventually outclass his or her rivals that are initially quicker on the uptake.

What confuses the issue is that rapid early improvement can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If something is initially difficult you may become discouraged, think yourself “untalented” and give up too soon. And if you take to something quickly (especially at a young age) you might be considered “talented”, be encouraged to do more of it, and given more opportunities than an older or slower learning person. The idea that differences in ability are due to inborn talent theory might be useful to a totalitarian state that wants to pick out those children best equipped to become future champions, to prove the superiority of its social system to the rest of the world.  But it is useless to the person that wants to become the best they can be at something they enjoy. We can only go forward with what we have, from where we are now.  All that is left under our control are:

  1. What we study and practice
  2. How we study and practice, and
  3. How much we study and practice

The challenge is to get those three things right. Naturally there is always the risk that you’ll do all that, yet still not reach the standard you had hoped for … … And that is why you have to love music for its own sake, to enjoy the journey, and not to stake everything on reaching the destination.

2 responses to “10,000 hours to mastery?

    • Have you read the books that I recommend? Do you STILL think it is absurd? For becoming a truly outstanding pianist I happen to think that 10,000 hours is not enough … and by quite some way. Of course you are entitled to your opinion, but if you expect anyone to agree with it you will have to supply some reasons for holding it. Baldly stating “I think this is just absurd” is not going to convince anyone.

      p.s. The link you have supplied does not work!