The 10,000 Hour Rule

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In 1999, I was just about done with the mental health profession.  I was an eight-year veteran in the field, licensed and managing several programs in Boston, MA.  I was newly married and wondering how in the world I was going to grow in a profession I loved while living in one of the most expensive cities in America.

That was the end of it – too much frustration and not enough opportunity.  Until one-day, a former colleague and friend of mine shared with me an amazing story about how he made some changes in his life, which ultimately led to his dream job in the field.  I gained a significant amount of insight from his story, not the least of which included the concepts of hard work and dedication to becoming the very best I could become.  Rather than expecting things to come to me, rather than passing up on opportunities or going through the motions, I decided I’d be the initiator.  Rather than being average at a lot of things, I chose to become very good at a few things.  I set new goals in this direction and have spent the past several years learning, growing, and taking advantage of new opportunities that came my way.  It has made all the difference in terms of my personal enjoyment and the general satisfaction I get from doing my work.

So needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I decided to pick up Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers.  One of the compelling arguments he makes in his analysis of success is, in fact, the very argument I began to make and test years ago.  In his book, he states that psychologists and neurologists who study performance and expertise, in general, believe there is a magic number that exists for true mastery to exist.  That number is 10,000 hours of practice.  My excitement about this phenomenon, however, is not the amount of time required but the idea that shifting your time and energy in new and more productive ways can have such a powerful impact.

Things get even more intriguing when Gladwell chooses to look more closely at groups of people who are gifted and successful in their fields.  When you analyze these groups you begin to see that innate talent plays a smaller and smaller role in distinguishing one person from another.  At that level, the factor that plays the biggest role is in fact preparation.  He goes on to argue that at some point innate ability has a cut off point, meaning you need to posses enough ability to be “good enough”, and after that, most of success comes from the opportunities you are given and more importantly, what you choose to do with those opportunities.

So for fun, let’s assume that a large-majority of people who enter the mental health field and successfully complete graduate school do, in fact, possess some level of talent and innate ability as helping professionals.  If this were the case, determinants of success would appear to center around one’s approach to skill development along with one’s ability and willingness to take advantage of available opportunities.

Gladwell continues his discussion in this area when he examines the work of a psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson at Berlin’s Elite Academy of Music.  In the 1990’s Dr. Ericsson, and his colleagues, looked at a group of extremely talented violinists and analyzed these musicians in three groups.  Group one were those students with the potential to become world-class violinists.  Group two represented those students judged to be “very good”, and group three were students who were good but unlikely to ever play professionally.

As they studied the progression of their careers, from early age to present day, they found that none of the students were simply “naturals”, meaning none were musicians who could simply play without any work or effort.  They also did not find any students in the three groups who lacked innate ability and simply overcame that deficit through hard work.  Their research suggested that once a musician is “good enough” to be admitted to the Berlin academy the only thing that distinguished the three groups was how hard each of them worked.  By the age of twenty, the students who were the best in their class, the true masters, were practicing significantly more than everyone else.  By this age, group three had totaled 4,000 hours of practice time while group two totaled 8,000 hours.  And how many practice hours did group one have by age twenty?  You guessed it -10,000 hours.

In study after study, Malcolm Gladwell finds this pattern, and he offers some rather interesting examples as proof, from Mozart, to the Beatles, to Bill Gates.

One of the things I preach to people who are willing to listen is the idea of changing your routine.  I call it “Creating an Exercise Program for Your Career” and in many respects it is based on the principles Gladwell defines through the 10,000 hour rule.

The idea is simple.  Once you have thoroughly examined your interests, passions and goals take some time to do an inventory of how you spend your days.  Then, make an effort to redefine those days by dedicating more time to things within the field that you are passionate about.  Instead of spending two hours a night watching baseball or reality TV, use that time to engage in activities that are directly related to your goals.  Learn something new by volunteering your time, spend two hours researching a topic of interest to you, or read a book on a special area within mental health.  It can be any number of things.  If you choose to take this step and are committed to this effort for six months, I promise you will see an incredible difference.  At the end of that time period you will be more knowledgeable, more experienced, more motivated and better positioned in the marketplace than you were six months prior.

And if that intrigues you then I suggest you take a look at this worksheet I created to help get you started.

Exercise Program for Your Career



  1. Brian Sullivan, PsyD  June 30, 2009

    Sage suggestions, Dave. This all used to be easier before kids, but that’s no excuse. Your thoughts are compelling.



  2. Barbara Jordan  June 30, 2009

    I agree with you completely David. When I first became a counselor educator, I had to immerse myself in research, studying every facet of the profession. Although I already practiced eight years in the field, I had to update my research so that I was well-prepared to answer students’ questions. I had to stretch myself, and that required a lot of dedication and extra work. As a personal life coach and professional success coach, I am required to learn a somewhat different set of skills. I must be knowledgeable in less clinical areas such as managment/leadership skills, work/life balance, stress/time management, etc. Instead of listening to the radio in the car, I began listening to self-help, business, and management training books on tape or CD. As far as changing my recreational habits, I already watch little or no TV. I try to socialize with like-minded, forward-thinking, supportive, motivated people who have a lot of initiative. This allows me to multi-task. I’m not only relaxing and socializing, but also networking. Great reminders David. Thanks!

  3. Cordes Simpson  July 5, 2009

    Read Outliers. Pretty interesting stuff. So much depends on timing, practice,opportunity and luck. Interesting to see how attitudes and generational differences can make such huge differences in wealth and talent. I wonder how you make yourself one of those outliers? By the way, I am try to follow you on twitter but haven’t figured out how to use it yet. I am hampden50: Bill Gates has nothing to fear from me.

  4. Barbara Radin Fox  July 20, 2009

    When I was the Employment Manager at The Washington Post, I came to believe that a better hiring decision was based on how hard a worker a person was rather than how smart or how high a person’s GPA was. I still believe that today!

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