Alan Weiss’s Monday Morning Memo® – 11/27/2023
I like the writer Malcolm Gladwell a lot. He’s written dozens of books—including one outside of his genre, The Bomber Mafia, which was excellent—and my favorite is The Tipping Point. It was in Outliers that he popularized “the 10,000 hours of practice” rule.
That research was actually done by Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University. And that original work also highlights another key factor: How good a student’s teacher is. (Ericsson and Gladwell apparently had never spoken before the book’s publication.)
The point is that 10,000 hours (or any amount of time) practicing incorrectly isn’t going to improve anyone. This is the fallacy of asking for X years of experience to fill a job. Ten years of no learning isn’t valuable, nor is one year of learning simply repeated nine more times.
We can call this “disciplined practice,” meaning that an accomplished teacher, coach, or mentor provides feedback and insights toward constant improvement. This is why interactive learning is so superior to listening to a lecture. You don’t learn to ski by reading a book or listening to someone pontificate on skiing. I learned to scuba dive by sitting in the bottom of a pool with an instructor, and then swimming on the bottom 40 feet below the ocean’s surface doing what he was doing.
I’ll add one more component: affinity. This is the natural ability and inclination (behavioral disposition and talent) to accomplish something. I have no musical ability, no affinity for playing music. I can barely play the radio. So no amount of thousands of hours or expert coaching (I’ve tried) will result in my playing an instrument or singing. (The piano and voice teachers said, “Enough, it can’t be done.”)
However, most people will tell you I can speak and write pretty well. I’ve had an affinity for these pursuits since grammar school, some excellent teachers, and plenty of opportunity to hone my craft.
But it didn’t take 10,000 hours. Michael Jordan didn’t need 10,000 hours, nor did Bill Gates, nor did Oprah Winfrey.
Nor do we, if we have the affinity and the disciplined coaching. I can write a 200-page book in 40 hours, ready for commercial publishing. I wrote this column in 20 minutes. But I couldn’t learn to play the piano (which I consider a gift from God) if I practiced under an expert coach 24 hours a day!
So we should all go with our strengths—our affinities—along with that disciplined practice. It’s about quality, not quantity. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent of five years of 40-hour weeks.
I have other things to do with my time!
You play how you practice and you practice how you play. —Marcus Luttrell
People believe practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t. If you’re making a tremendous amount of mistakes, all you’re doing is deeply ingraining the same mistakes. —Jillian Michaels
Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. —Vince Lombardi
My brother-in-law was a karate expert. He joined the army, and the first time he saluted, he killed himself. —Henny Youngman