Punching The 10000 Hour Myth In The Jaw

You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it.

Countless business books and life books have touted the “10,000 hours to mastery” rule. I think Malcolm Gladwell started it all – or maybe it was a study that he popularized.

The thesis is this: talent isn’t innate. Talent can be created. All you need to do is to practice, practice, practice. In fact, he even went as far as calculating the minimum amount of time you need to practice to get to “mastery,” and that amount of time is 10,000 hours. The justification: look at all of these amazing, talented individuals and how they excelled in their fields. Even if you ask them directly, they won’t say it was talent. They will tell you directly that it took a lot of hard work to get to where they are today. Some worked even longer than 10,000 hours at it. But that seems to be the minimum.

The study looked at rockstar tennis players, chess players, basketball players, classically musicians, and more. In story after story, it’s all the same: persistence and practice beat talent and created success.

So we go on – thinking that all we need to do is work hard at something and practice it for 10,000 hours, and we will master it. Not easy, but simple, right?

Only one small issue. If you look at all the specific fields that the above people excelled in, you will realize some interesting similarities. Sure, you may say that there is a huge difference between Yo-Yo-Ma and Michael Jordan. They are nothing alike. But their “playing fields” are very similar.

You are probably saying – “how is basketball like playing the cello? they couldn’t be more different”. But they are!

Both, in fact, all of the fields listed above have stringent rules, guidelines, and regulations. In most sports, most games, most music genres, there is a specific set of rules that must be followed. If you break the rules, you fail. If you think about it, these fields, or “worlds,” exist in a subset of reality. In a way, they are like closed-world video games. There is a certain set of things that are allowed and plenty of others that are not. If you think about it, it’s a bit like how AI players can master games like DOTA2 – the world of the game has a limited set of rules.

If you play within these worlds, then 10,000 hours WILL likely take you to mastery within that specific “world,” where the rules rarely change. That amount of persistence and practice works.

But what about outside of those worlds?

What about the real world, where there are way fewer rules? What about the world of innovation and startups? The rules in the business world change all the time – sure – there are legal and things that are not, but in the pantheon of legal, there are near-infinite directions to go in. Since the rules change all the time – the rules in place when Facebook and the iPhone were born are very different from today’s rules, so launching something like either of those products today will not create a new Facebook or a new iPhone.

The world outside the game is almost limitless. This is why we can’t just rote repeat success from the past – everything is changing all the time. Rules change all the time. They even changed between the time you read the first line and this line of this post.

So how can you succeed when the rules change all the time – when what you did before which worked didn’t, and vice versa? How can you succeed when there really is no roadmap for success?

It’s effortless. You ignore Yoda and try. Try a plethora of different things, and see what sticks. Instead of placing huge bets on a few “sure things,” place many little bets on a large number of “unsure things.” It’s what VCs do. It’s what the smartest startups do (MVP and openness to pivoting). It’s was the most innovative companies do.

It’s what you should do. It’s not a guarantee, but it will give you the best chance to win. If you aren’t working in one of the “worlds with rules” above, take those 10,000 hours, try 10,000 different things, and see what pops.