10,000 Hours Did Not Quite Replicate

I listened to a podcast interviewing David Epstein, author of Range, that came out earlier this year. He mentioned that the original 1993 study of violinists and pianists excelling on the basis of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before age 20 has recently failed to replicate. Both the NYTimes and The Guardian overstate his conclusion in their headlines, but listening to him myself, Epstein did state pretty strongly that the 10,000 hours research is not established and should not be considered to be demonstrated. He leans more to genetic causes, which is unsurprising from the author of the bestselling The Sports Gene, and to including “practice variability,” such as playing different sports (or with a different ball or on a different size court), or in other fields, reading outside your area of expertise, or interacting with people who aren’t like you. I saw a similarity to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility, especially hormesis.

I decided decades ago that it was not necessary to be a massive generalist to have your brain work properly, but that it is an advantage to have at least one endeavor that is quite different from your career or main focus. A mathematician who also has a fascination with Civil War studies is not diluting his mathematical abilities, but enhancing them.  I didn’t have the reasoning behind that quite right, I now think, though the principle does hold.  I thought in terms of activating and developing various parts of one’s brain, which is why I was so intrigued with the Graduation 2010 project in Daviess County, KY.  That may still turn out to be so, but has not been demonstrated.  What does seem to be happening is that the individual has a greater library of analogies and strategies to draw from when a problem grows difficult. I suspect there is a limit to this.  In fact, as a massive generalist myself, I can assure that there is a limit. Yet a full library of analogies can be quite useful.


And notice, the violinists who practiced less still practiced a whole lot.  That’s worth remembering.  One of the best had practiced “only” 4,000 hours before age 20, but that’s still equivalent to working full-time at it for two years. Malcolm Gladwell and others may be wrong that there is something magical about 10,000 hours, and certainly wrong that anyone who practices 10,000 hours would become an expert, but those who excel do seem to have a heckuva lot of deliberate practice.
Unsurprisingly, the people who did the original study do not feel this undermines their work in the least. Intriguingly, one of them believes in a variant of the stress model, that the intensity of practice is a physiological stressor that calls forth the expression of dormant DNA, while the other thought that practice was the most important, but not only factor.  I don’t know how strongly they stated things in 1993, and if Gladwell overstated their conclusions then.

11 thoughts on “10,000 Hours Did Not Quite Replicate”

  1. 10,000 hours before you’re 20 is more than enough to cause all sorts of repetitive strain injuries, especially if you don’t have competent teaches or coaches. There are lots of stories about musicians that had to either give up or take years long hiatuses from music.

    On top of it all, for all but a very few, it’s a lousy way to make a living.

    When you get down to it, job prospects in the arts are probably worse than pro sports.

    And another Gladwell story bites the dust.

  2. and certainly wrong that anyone who practices 10,000 hours would become an expert,


    You mean it’s not Nature OR Nurture, but a combination of both?!?!?


    I am SHOCKED, I say!!

  3. On one hand, I get the impression that the detractors often skip or misunderstand a few salient points.

    * it’s ‘deliberate practice’, not just ‘practice’

    * there is no bell that rings at exactly 10,000 hours

    * you get to ‘expert’ level, not ‘best in history’ level like Mozart or Lebron or whoever (annoying examples that my friend always dredges up).

    * and, taking a step down, is ‘expert’ level good enough to reach the US pro sports level and be shown on TV? Perhaps that’s an even more select crew than mere experts.

    On the other hand, I would also assume there is survivorship bias. Quite simply, you are unlikely to get through 10,000 hours if you lack talent. For instance, I seem to recall Steve Sailer a few years back mentioning some reporter who set out to prove or disprove the thesis by doing 10,000 hours of golf. At that time, it was mentioned he had just gotten to a couple of thousand hours but still wasn’t very good. Yet even though he hadn’t finished, this was interpreted as a failure of the theory?

  4. Intriguingly, one of them believes in a variant of the stress model, that the intensity of practice is a physiological stressor that calls forth the expression of dormant DNA

    Another thing that Taleb writes about is the Lindy effect. If something replicates in ancient literature then odds are it’s more likely to be valid, or at the least it is less likely to be a flash in the pan. In that light, we can look to Proverbs 27:17, ‘as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another’.

    Practice all you want, but without competition and overcoming adversity you are likely just spinning your wheels.

  5. Spending 10000 hours to “well actually” Malcolm Gladwell seems quite sufficient to make one an insufferable prig.

  6. There is a book about why people with high IQ’s don’t achieve greater success than those with ordinary intelligence. The author’s conclusion was similar i.e. talent plus a lot of hard work. Two of his examples were Bill Gates and Paul Allen who started to write code in high school and had many thousand of hours of experience before starting M.S.

  7. There is more to music than practice. Take this test to find out where you stand on the ability to hear music.


    I’m average at around 75%. My son an amateur musician is in the 80s and there are a small population that gets it all right. People who have perfect pitch. Nearly all really great musicians are in this category.

    I find it interesting that only a couple of percent of humans cannot hear pitch and tone. As there is no real advantage to survival, I assume the universe likes music. ;)

  8. Ron, Bill is maybe a better coder than me, but not by much. Microsoft’s success came from boosting MS DOS from IBM and running with it. As usual no great talent, just being in the right place at the right time, and having a pirate attitude made M$ great. ;)

  9. “but not by much”
    That is the funniest thing I have ever read. Unparodyable.

    “just being in the right place at the right time”
    The distillation of socialist “thought”, right there.

  10. Brian, I have worked with great coders. I have helped build video drivers and contributed to Linux in several areas. Bill Gates is behind Basic being so popular and a big part of windows. There are those who claim that once you learn Basic its impossible to ever code well again. I suspect this is hyperbole, but I do take their point. ;)

    Yup its always heroes for the right wing, and as there are so few real ones, its confusing. ;)

    Take the course: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL848F2368C90DDC3D

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