The Myth of the 10,000 Hour Rule – Why Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect
"Ask the great athlete or the concert pianist or the successful actor if they arrived at the place where they need no further practice. They will tell you that the higher you climb in proficiency and public acceptance, the greater the need for practice." ~ Eric Butterworth from Spiritual Economics

People who can stay on mission and on task with focused intensity for an entire decade are often world-class in their chosen area of endeavor. They are likely a national brand, or soon will be. In his fascinating book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that one of the keys to attaining high levels of success is spending ten thousand hours of practice at your chosen craft. The Beatles spent countless hours playing at summer festivals before you ever heard of them. Peyton Manning, widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play football, has been known for his work ethic since he was a child.

Carol Dweck wrote in her great book Mindset: “Is it ability or mindset? Was it Mozart’s musical ability or the fact that he worked till his hands were deformed? Was it Darwin’s scientific ability or the fact that he collected specimens non-stop from early childhood?”

Geniuses & Clods

"The great piano virtuoso Paderewski was once playing before an audience of the rich and the royal. After a brilliant performance, an elegant lady waxed ecstatic over the great artist. She said, "Ah Maestro, you are a genius!" Paderewski tartly replied, "Ah yes, madam, but before I was a genius I was a clod!" What he was saying was that his present acclaim was not handed to him on a silver platter. He, too, was once a little boy laboriously practicing his scales. And even at his peak, behind every brilliant performance there were countless hours of practice and preparation." ~ Eric Butterworth from Spiritual Economics

It's too easy to look at someone we admire and just assume he or she was simply born a genius or "got lucky." Behind every genius in any field is a clod turned into a genius we admire. Tiger Woods? Check. Oprah? Check. Steve Jobs? Check. These men and women have "practiced" more than most can imagine driven to perform at the highest level of mastery. How about you? What are you putting countless hours of practice and preparation into?

Exceptional people work really hard. But is there more to the story?

The Myth

The “10,000-hour rule” -- that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field -- has become widely accepted as true.
The problem according to Daniel Goleman in his terrific new book is that it’s only half-true. Daniel Goleman "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence."

According to Goleman, if you are a bad golfer, and continue to make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of repeatedly practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer.

My then eight year old son learned this the hard way when he was learning to swim and dive. Maddison would bravely dive off the diving board and do a belly flop. He bravely tried again and again with the same result. I asked one of the swim instructors to coach him on the correct technique, and he rapidly improved.

Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the ten-thousand-hour rule-of-thumb, told Goleman, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” “You have to tweak the system by pushing allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

Ericsson argues the secret of winning is “deliberate practice,” where an expert coach takes you through well-designed training over months or years, and you give it your full focus.

How experts in any endeavor pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference.
While novices and amateurs are content to let their passive, bottom-up neural systems take over their routines, experts never rest their active concentration during practice.

For instance, in his much-cited study of violinists – the one that showed the top tier had practiced over 10,000 hours – Ericsson found the experts did so with full concentration on improving a particular aspect of their performance that a master teacher identified. The feedback matters and the concentration does, too – not just the hours.

Daniel Goleman asserts that that learning how to improve any skill requires top-down focus. Neuroplasticity, the strengthening of old brain circuits and building of new ones for a skill we are practicing, requires our undivided attention: When practice occurs while we are focusing elsewhere, the brain does not rewire the relevant circuitry for that particular routine.

Daydreaming or letting our mind wander defeats practice; those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks. Paying full attention and being mindful boosts the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expands or creates neural networks for what we are practicing.

As you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don’t need to think about it – you can do the routine well enough on automatic.

And this is where amateurs and experts are strikingly different. Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about 50 hours of training –whether in skiing or driving – people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be limited.

The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game. The secret to smart practice boils down to focus on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach.

Daniel Goleman’s brilliant insights apply to mindful leadership. Leaders can receive feedback, and develop these new and more productive habits by working with an executive coach. The investment is well worth the reward: your ability to influence the future, your career and your professional-development capabilities.

Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to help leaders practice the right behaviors? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to learn how to model effectively Mindful leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I consistently practicing the right behaviors for success?” Emotionally intelligent and compassionate companies provide executive coaching to help leaders model desired competencies.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders be more focused. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.