10000 Hours of Practice

I stand corrected. When I was examining the Prodigy Myth, I highlighted talent as one of, though not the critical, element to raising a prodigy. After reading Outliers, it appears that talent is squat if you don’t spend the time developing it. This fundamental rule applies to everyone – all-star sportspeople, chess masters, Bill Gates, Mozart, and The Beatles – and there are no exceptions to this rule. All the talent in the world won’t make you brilliant if you don’t practice enough.

Do you want to know how much you need to practice to become brilliant? 10000 hours. That’s roughly 2.7 hours a day, everyday for 10 years. Bill Gates, Mozart and The Beatles all clocked in their 10,000 hours religiously, and then some, and that’s how they became brilliant at what they do. So if you want your children to be brilliant at something, that’s what you’re aiming for – 10000 hours of practice. That’s a lot of practice time so it makes sense if it is something that your child has an inclination for, and preferably an interest in. Now how do I turn Gavin’s obsesssion with Thomas into something useful? Unless we can find something else that Gavin can really get into.

As much as I disagreed with Amy Chuah’s methods, there is one thing she said that I have to agree with – nothing is fun until you get good at it. It’s the “getting good at it” part that is challenging. If you’re lucky and your child discovers his passion like Bill Gates, he will be motivated to find time to practice on his own. But the other thing that Outliers also highlighted is the importance of having opportunity. If  you don’t provide your child the opportunity to get good at it, he will never excel at it (it being anything your child desires to learn more about – music, sport, science, chess,…).

The other thing that these 10000 hours is beginning to remind me of is the study in Brain Rules for Baby that showed that children who learned a musical instrument for more than 10 years had the ability to pick up emotion-laden cues with lightning speed. 10 years of music study can equate to 10000 hours of practice. That means, in order for your child to benefit from music lessons so that he can read emotions quickly and easily, he has to become an expert at it. But the thing about becoming an expert at one field is that you usually don’t have the time to work on becoming brilliant at something else. It’s either music or something else. Food for thought…

Suzuki was right – talent has to be cultivated through practice – lots and lots of practice. Anyone can be brilliant at anything they choose to be if they can be diligent about their practice. That’s probably what creates the illusion of talent. It’s probably not so much talent that we see but our innate interest in a subject that directs us towards a specific field. For Bill Gates, it was programming; for Mozart, it was music (although it appears that there was a lot of Daddy’s firm guidance going on there); for Michael Jordan, it was basketball. And that’s probably why Michael Jordan excelled at basketball but was never really brilliant at baseball despite his efforts to break into the sport – he just didn’t have the hours of practice behind him on the baseball field.

So what is your child’s passion? If you want your child to become a prodigy and make a career out of it, then ideally, you’ll want him to discover his true passion by the time he’s about 10 years old. Add another 10 years of solid practice and he’ll be 20 years old by the time he’s ready take on that field and make waves. Why 10 years old? If he’s working in another field, he’ll be too busy to practice. Once he’s working to make ends meet, it will be tough to break away.

That brings us full circle back to early childhood development. Early exposure to a wide variety of subjects allows your child to discover his passions. Help him discover it, then give him the opportunity to practice it and excel at it.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

8 thoughts on “10000 Hours of Practice

  1. I agree with the part about choosing 1 field (or max 2) to focus on. There’s simply only that much time we have a day to practice. Trying to excel in too many things could lead to burnout.

    Personally, my passion as a student was in Math and I practised a lot since primary school days, often sourcing out challenging problems to solve. The more I practised, the faster and more accurate I got.

    In contrast, I knew brilliant people (Mensa club standard) who were very busy with extra-curricular activities and didn’t practise much, so they scored much lower. They can still excel in their chosen field because many employers nowadays look at soft skills as well.

    I’d encourage my child to practise diligently, have a positive and adaptable learning attitude, and to develop soft skills too.

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  2. Hmmmm….that is what I find also in many books I read…it is all practice, practice, practice! I guess it is not to develop the things that he has talent for but for future problems like Maths, if he does not like it, he will practice until he is good at it. That is the concept underlying Kumon as well.

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  3. Another thought-provoking post. Thank you, Shen-Li!
    “nothing is fun until you get good at it” –
    What is your definition of “being good at smth” though?

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  4. MieVee – absolutely. When I first started rock climbing, I used to be one of the weakest climbers in the group. But because I trained twice as hard as everyone else, I eventually got ahead.

    The idea is not that children should neglect everything else in their pursuit of their passion, but for parents to realise that they cannot expect their children to excel at everything or even one thing if the child’s focus is diverted to too many extracurricular activities.

    LM – I don’t really have a definition for being good at something. I supposed it would differ for different things. Let’s take riding a bike for an example – it’s only fun when once you learn how to ride the bike, but while you’re trying to balance on two wheels, it’s not fun. So I guess being good at something is knowing enough to enjoy it.

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  5. Thanks for your answer, Shen-Li. I have to say, I don’t have a definition either. But I like yours. Somehow, it is staying with the “enjoyment” part of doing smth and not going into “benchmarking” that I would sometimes find myself struggling with…

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  6. I find that when we’re too focussed on achieving fixed levels, the going is usually a lot tougher and it’s also harder to keep going. That’s why I like to look at it from an enjoyment perspective, too.

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  7. Hi
    i am new user to your web. my son is now 6 yrs, so for he did not show the talent in any of subject that he can excel in. Can i choose the subject that i like him to be brilliant in and practice. would it help or would i be doing wrong. please advice.

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  8. Hi Gajanan,

    I think you can guide, you can suggest, and you can encourage, but beyond that, you really do need your child’s buy-in to the subject because he will have to take himself the rest of the way. If he cannot get beyond a lukewarm interest in the subject you choose, he won’t get there. It is a common mistake for parents – we want the best for our children. Sometimes we end up wanting it more than they do and that’s when it can fall apart. I’m sure you’re familiar with the scenario where a child is good at something but after a while he sees that his parents are more excited about it than he is and he gets resentful towards that subject and stops practicing as a form of protest.

    It’s a difficult balance – to be sufficient involved and encouraging without going overboard by accident.

    My advice would be to focus on the enjoyment factor. Have no expectations, just have fun. Your child will find his own interest and when he does, you can help him get the opportunities he needs to take it further. To offer an analogy… if this were a movie, your role is the supporting actor – try not to steal the show. I hope that helps…

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