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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 18, 2021


In this episode we explore why 10,000 hours of practice isn’t perfect, and how we can make practice better.


Hello and welcome to episode 117 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. In this episode we explore why 10,000 hours of practice isn’t perfect, and how we can make practice better.

“Practice makes perfect” - at least that’s how the old saying goes. In fact, you’ve probably also heard that 10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert or master. The 10,000 hours figure was popularised by one of my favourite writers, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. While the general principle is right - that practice is an essential part of becoming an expert - the exact number of hours is at best arbitrary. The quoted figure is based on the work of Alders Ericsson who observed that the most accomplished violin students he studied had put in, on average, 10,000 hours of practice by the time they were 20 years old. Importantly, 10,000 hours was an average rather than a minimum standard. Ericsson found that some violin students had practiced significantly more, and some significantly less, than 10,000 hours to achieve that level of expertise. Even at that point they still all had room to go to truly become experts.

And, as Ericsson noted, not all practice is created equal. Undertaking mechanical repetition - just doing the same thing over and over - doesn’t improve performance much at all. Undertaking deliberate practice - where we focus on making changes and trying new things to move us towards a goal - is much better. Not every hour of practice is equal.

We also start from different points. If I put 10,000 hours into practicing a 100 metre sprint at this point in my life, I’m still highly unlikely to reach a truly competitive level. I will improve, for sure. But I won’t become what would be considered to be an expert or master. 

To illustrate this point, cognitive psychologists Campitelli and Gobet, found that reaching a master level in chess took some people up to 16,120 hours of practice. For others the same level of accomplishment came after just 728 hours. There is a wide range and people clearly don’t start from the same point. When trying to come up with a figure, they estimated the amount of deliberate practice required to reach a master level is closer to an average of 3,000 hours. 

Recent research also shows that it’s not just what we do when we’re practicing that helps us to improve. A study published in Cell Reports just this week demonstrates that short rests while practicing improves performance. For example, they had participants practice a short piano note sequence for 10 seconds. When they introduced a 10 second rest period between practice periods, performance improved markedly. Their study showed that the brain effectively kept replaying compressed versions of the task during the break. In fact, the ‘neural replay’ was 20 times faster than the physical activity itself. They found this effect most pronounced when the rest periods were between periods of practice, rather than just at the end of the practice. It’s as if the brain is virtually rehearsing the finger movements extremely quickly in our heads when we provide the chance for our hands to rest. The whole article is a great read if you have an interest in neuroscience. As always, the reference is in the show notes.

So, whether you’re learning something yourself or teaching others, here are some tips:

  1. Start with the ‘why’ of practice - what is the broader goal we are working towards? This helps people to focus and sustain effort.

  2. Make the practice deliberate. What is the goal of today’s practice? What are we going to vary or try out? Don’t become stuck in mechanical repetition.

  3. Learn from a range of people. Sometimes the way one person explains something may not work for you. It’s always good to get tips from a few people.

  4. Take breaks. Give your brain a chance to rehearse and consolidate what you are learning.

  5. Keep reading Malcolm Gladwell. Sure, the whole 10,000 hours thing was a bit overstated, but he is brilliant at extending your thinking into new areas in an entertaining way. Never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Have a great week.



Ethan R. Buch, Leonardo Claudino, Romain Quentin, Marlene Bönstrup, Leonardo G. Cohen. Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replay. Cell Reports, 2021; 35 (10): 109193 DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109193

Campitelli, G. J., & Gobet, F. (2011). Deliberate practice: Necessary but not sufficient. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 280-285.

Gladwell, Malcolm, (2008). Outliers : the story of success. New York :Little, Brown and Company.