The 10,000 Hour Fallacy

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It promotes strong work ethics, but is itself an example of lazy thinking

In the gym the other day I had a session with my fitness trainer. In weight training, he told me, getting really strong took 10.000 hours. It’s a great conversation piece. Just state that it takes 10.000 hours of practice to master something and everyone around will probably nod in agreement.

A few days later I ran into a former advertising executive turned real estate developer when he was in his early 50’ies. Of all places, he had seen opportunities in Poland, but his timing was off and he ran into the 2008 financial crisis.

“Why would anyone in his right mind change from successful advertising executive to real estate developer that late in life. Everyone knows it takes 10.000 hours to become really good at something – and that’s what my advertising executive friends are telling me now.”

Fortunately, it now seems likely that his projects will succeed after all. If the logic holds it must be because he has put in 10.000 hours during the last seven years.

More likely he has fallen victim to the 10.000 hour fallacy. The notion that you must put in 10.000 hour to be really accomplished at anything probably originates from a chess study. Chess is somewhat like a language – and all kids learn their mother tongue in the course of 10.000 hours or so. The same goes for chess – you will get somewhat accomplished by putting in the hours - but you will most likely not become a grand master.

There’s more to it than just putting in the hours. Ironically, the 10.000 hour fallacy promotes work ethics, but is itself an example of lazy thinking. It falls in the same category as sayings like ‘practice makes perfect’ or ’10 per cent inspiration, 90 per cent perspiration’, but in a more pretentious version.

Lazy for two main reasons. It clearly does not respect talent or even disposition – and it does not distinguish between simple and complex activities. If you want to become a body builder or weight lifter it will be so much easier if you have the right body type. The same goes for swimmers and basketball players.

If you want to strike it rich in real estate development you should not be discouraged that you have less than 10.000 hours of experience. Just get the timing and the fundamentals right. The 10.000 hours won’t help you. Luck and courage will.

Predicting booms and busts is not an exact science, but it’s practically a natural law that they follow each other like dawn follows night.

It’s not about the hours. It’s about your mental disposition – the courage to be bold when others are timid. Aside from that – trust your good luck.

Photo: David Santaoalla/CC



Steen Reeslev is the managing partner of This Is Touch – a company providing television airtime for corporations in the growth markets of Latin-America, Asia, and Africa. Previously he was senior vice president responsible for Group Relations at A.P. Moller-Maersk. This Is Touch is based on experience from A.P. Moller-Maersk. The company produced a large number of films on all aspects of the business. The high quality of the films gave access to airtime on television in more than 30 markets.