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Can 10,000 hours of practice make a genius?

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Does 10,000 hours of practice make one the master of any chosen pursuit? The theory finally gets put to the test.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell made an interesting observation: that people who rose above the rest and achieved incredible success in their respective endeavors all have one thing in common: they spent at least 10,000 hours learning and internalizing and perfecting their crafts. The 10,000-hour theory was originally formulated by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University.

That applies to all the top artists, musicians, writers, and business leaders.  Wayne Gretzky played hockey for 10,000 hours growing up. Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours programming computers. Yo-Yo Ma spent 10,000 hours practicing the cello and violin. And so on. They all spent 10,000 hours or more doing what they do, and were born at the right time to have opportunities presented to them.

Dan McLaughlin, a 30-year-old professional photographer from Oregon, decided to put this theory to the test, and committed himself to 10,000 hours of mastering golf -- to the point of hoping to become a PGA golf champ. McLaughlin, who never picked up a golf club in his life, calls his endeavor "The Dan Plan," and has already picked up a sponsorship from Nike for his efforts.  He's also shooting a documentary about the experience. (So he's also getting 10,000 hours in promotional marketing as well.)

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that's at least 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in the field. Those that start their pursuit as children have a head start and an advantage -- plenty of time to get those 10,000 hours in.  So McLaughlin's experiment could be instructive, and hopeful for many, as he started his pursuit a little later in life.

However, not everyone agrees with the 10,000-hour theory. David Hambrick of Michigan State University and Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University, writing in the New York Times, cite findings from Vanderbilt University researchers who conclude that intellect or in-born talent, not brute-force practice, makes overachievers what they are.

The Vanderbilt researchers "tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13." Those in the top  99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — "were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work" than those merely in the 99.1 percentile."

In their own research into the practice habits of pianists, Hambrick and Meinz found that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicted success in the pianists' ability to remember and perform pieces.

So, will 10,000 hours  of practice and learning a genius -- or golf pro or any other type of pro -- make?

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure