There has been a lot of buzz over the last few weeks about an article in the journal of Psychological Science. It has been claimed that the article destroys Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.  The essence of the rule  is that it takes 10,000 hours of hard practice to reach an elite level in a discipline.

We should start with a bit of clarity about Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. It is of course not a rule, nor indeed is it Gladwell’s. It is a phrase that he popularised in his rather enjoyable book Outliers. Neither is it the first time somebody has made an attack on it. Last year there was some spirited discussion when David Epstein of Sports Illustrated gave the example of two high jumpers in the Olympics, one with over 20,00 hours of practice and  one with hardly any, and humorously reframing the rule as 10,000 hours plus or minus 10,000 hours. 

Behind the claims are rather fundamental arguments as to whether genetics (born with it) or practice (developed the skill) explain performance, and of course both play a role. In response to Epstein Gladwell properly pointed out that there is a difference between physical domains of excellence and those with significant cognitive elements. That is, developing expertise in chess is not the same as developing excellence in high jumping. One, has the potential to be heavily influenced by genetics, the other needs to be learned. One may have an inherent talent for chess, but the moves and strategies do not reside in our genetics. 

The academics who undertook the recent study used an approach called meta-analysis. Rather than study performance themselves, they review the academic literature to collect relevant studies and provide an overview of what we know about, as academics term it, deliberate practice. Their study included 111 independent samples and a sample of 11,135 participants. To conduct the analysis they look for variance in performance that is correlated with different inputs. In this case effect of deliberate practice on performance. The results are extremely interesting. In summary they find deliberate practice explains the variance in performance as follows

  • Games 26%
  • Music 21%
  • Sports 18%
  • Education 4%
  • Professions 1%

A suggested explanation for the lack of variance accounted for in Education and Professions is the difficulty properly defining deliberate practice in these domains and that some in the study may have already had significant expertise before starting. For training and education professionals, it underpins the difficulty associated with trying to assess the return on investment that might come from interventions. 

In the other domains the findings are significant and substantial, but do not meet the hurdle of supporting a view that performance is predominantly explained by deliberate practice. So in that sense there is some debunking done. What the study doesn’t do (it didn’t set out to) is look at extreme elites. Those only at the very top of their domains, the outliers, to isolate the impact of deliberate performance. In that sense the research is talking about something different to Gladwell. So, it’s not a rule, but we knew that already and practice may not make perfect, but it does have an impact.




About the author – Robert holds the Chair in Strategic Management at the School of Business and is Co-Academic Director of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Conflict Intervention at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. He was the founding Head of the School of Business and served as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Robert was head of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute and prior to this spent 18 years in industry.

Professor Robert Galavan PhD

BA (Mgmt.), MA (Ad. Ed.), Dip. (Strat), PhD
Chair in Strategic Management

School of Business
National University of Ireland Maynooth
Co. Kildare






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