The 10,000-Hour Question: How long does it take to learn a skill?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2013

In his Tedx talk titled “The First 20 Hours – How to Learn Anything”, Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business, attacked the popular 10,000-hour rule. Kaufman explained the bastardization of the 10,000-hour rule from its original meaning in research to its meaning today in popular culture, as a means of introducing his important findings: It takes far less than 10,000 hours to become good at something.

Kaufman is not the first to argue that the 10-000-hour rule is not sacrosanct. In his article titled “Genes vs Training: The Secrets of Success,” Ross Tucker wrote: “A subsequent study on Australian athletes found that 28% had participated for fewer than four years in their sport – that’s probably 3,000 to 4,000 hours, at most. One netball player from Australia had made the international stage on 600 hours of play.”

Kaufman was not interested in reducing the 10,000-hour rule, but obliterating it. He explained that the original research by Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that led to the 10-year or 10,000-hour rule focused on the path to expertise in disciplines such as chess and violin. Ericsson looked at the differences between those who reached the absolute top of their field compared to those who came close and concluded that the difference was the amount of deliberate practice.

When Ericsson’s research made its way into popular literature through books written by Malcolm Gladwell, Matthew Syed, Geoffrey Colvin, and others, the emphasis on expertise was lost. As Kaufman explained, the 10,000-hour rule morphed into a requirement to become good at something and then simply to learn a skill rather than the pathway to expertise.

Kaufman was not interested in becoming an expert competing at the top of his field. He simply wanted to learn something new. Most people do not set out to be grand chess masters; they want to play chess with their children or for the mental stimulation or to enjoy a new challenge. When I started to date my girlfriend, and found out that she liked to play tennis, I decided to learn to play tennis. I had no delusions of grandeur that if I put in my 10,000 hours, starting at age 26, I could make the ATP Tour by 36. I wanted to be able to sustain a rally long enough to feel like I got some exercise, and get enough serves in play as to make the effort worthwhile. Therefore, if one does not need the 10,000 hours to become an expert, how long does it take to learn to play an instrument or perform a sports skill?

During his presentation, Kaufman showed a typical learning curve and asked how long it takes to be good enough. The average learning curve is a steeply ascending line at the beginning that slows as it reaches its asymptote; essentially, when you first learn to shoot or hit a golf ball or play chess, your improvement occurs rapidly. However, as your performance becomes more consistent and you reduce errors, your improvement slows. Kaufman essentially wanted to know how long it would take to complete the rapid learning.

Kaufman said that his research showed that it takes 20 hours; Ericsson wrote that it takes approximately 40 hours to reach an acceptable level. Therefore, it takes somewhere between 20 and 40 hours to become good at a skill (though not to become an expert). For reference, Kaufman said that 20 hours is roughly 45 minutes per day for a month with a couple days off and demonstrated his 20 hours by playing the ukulele in his presentation as the culmination of his 20 hours of practice.

Kaufman offered his 4 simple steps to rapid skill acquisition:

  1. Deconstruct the skill
  2. Learn enough to self-correct (no procrastination)
  3. Remove practice barriers
  4. Practice at least 20 hours

To deconstruct the skill, Kaufman suggested breaking down the skill to its smallest component parts that will produce the best results. He explained these steps using his experience with the ukulele. He explained that to play most pop songs, he needed to know only four chords. This is similar to the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. In this case, learning four chords (the 20%) resulted in learning to play the ukulele at a more than passable level (80%). Therefore, spend your time on the skills or the parts of the skills that lead to the biggest gains.

In sports, deconstructing the skill can have different meanings. In baseball, for instance, deconstructing the skill of playing baseball could be focusing on one important aspect of baseball, like hitting. One could seek to deconstruct the specific skill (hitting), but the deconstruction of a skill in sports differs from one in music. When a player learns to hit a baseball, many times the player uses a tee. This is one way to deconstruct the skill – eliminate components of the skill to improve one part – in this case, the technique of swinging the bat through the strike zone. Whereas Kaufman was able to learn four chords and play a song on the ukulele, practicing one‘s swing on a tee may or may not lead to improved hitting in a live situation. Hitting a pitched ball adds another element of complexity to the task. Therefore, when deconstructing the skill, one must be cognizant of the current ability of the performer and the important constraints of the skill. For a 6-year-old, hitting on the tee is a good tool to learn to swing the bat. However, hitting on a tee is unlikely to help a player who has several years of experience – instead, a more experienced player likely would benefit from more work reading the pitches in live situations.

Next, one must learn enough to self-correct; one must understand the constraints of the skill in order to direct one’s effort, as with the four chords for the ukulele. Kauffman said in his presentation that he wanted to know everything about the topic when he set out to learn something new. This was procrastination. If one wants to learn to hit a baseball, he does not need to read a dozen books on hitting. He simply needs to know enough to be able to learn from his mistakes. If he popped up a pitch, what did he do wrong? If he swung and missed, did he swing at a fastball when the pitcher threw a breaking ball? If a player popped up a pitch, he could be dropping his hands; this knowledge should allow him to make changes and improve, whereas a player without any knowledge cannot learn from his mistake.

The third rule may be the most important. There is always an excuse not to do something. However, if learning a new skill is important, then one must make time. It must be a priority. If one wants to learn to hit a baseball, he needs to find a pitcher to throw to him or at least a batting cage. The first step is often the hardest because doing something new is hard and leads to mistakes, and people generally avoid from things that are difficult or error-ridden. Once someone eliminates the barriers, and takes the first step, the first two rules are possible.

Finally, practice 20 hours. Yes, when starting out, one is unlikely to be very good. There will be mistakes. Persisting through those first 20 hours is the key, as there should be real improvement after 20 hours of practice. I worked with a player who was frustrated every day after his workout. I thought he was going to quit in the middle of workouts, after the workouts, or before our next workout. He was so down after workouts, I almost quit. He never felt like he was improving. From day to day, the improvements were minimal. However, after a month of training, there was a huge, noticeable improvement; the daily, almost imperceptible improvements added up over time, and he improved and made his high school team the following season.

Because learning something new is difficult and takes time, many never try or quit early in the attempt due to frustration. To give the new skill a fair chance, one should invest 20 hours. In most cases, 20 hours will lead to big improvements, and as with Kaufman and the ukulele, the ability to perform the skill, even if it is not the entire skill or at an expert level.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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