10,000 Hours to Mastery: The Gladwell Effect on Learning Design

I just finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers. In one of its chapters, he explains the 10,000-hour rule. This rule states that people don’t become “masters” at complex things (programming, music, painting, free throws) until they have accrued 10,000-hours of practice. He does a great job of illustrating that people who are commonly regarding as “masters” are really just people who hit the 10,000 hour mark very early in their lifetimes. (Examples: Mozart and the Beatles in music; Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak in programming).

What does this mean for us?

The research he cites to prove his point is compelling. It does support this 10,000 hour threshold and crosses all types of areas from computer programming through hockey. But who cares, you ask? As learning professionals, we should.  In an era where company management wants training on just about anything distilled down to minutes of time as opposed to hours of time, what can a learner realistically gain in terms of mastery? – or even rudimentary skill?

Think about it. Today’s companies want people to spend less and less time in training, and they want to “downsize” out the most experienced workers (i.e. the most expensive ones).  It’s time for us to tell companies the truth: we can’t make people competent at anything very complex unless we really allow them the time required to learn. But a 30-minute e-course or 4-hour classroom experience—or even an 8-hour e-course and week-long training course—won’t make people “masters” at anything. At best, we give them a starting point to use in building competence on the job.

No one gets good at anything without practice

Don’t believe me? How long would you speculate someone needs to practice before you’d say they were a “good” doctor? Do you want the 1st year resident taking out your appendix or the general surgeon whose been doing her job for 10 years? What about driving? How many hours on the road does someone need before you feel like they are a good driver?

I’ll bet it’s not the six hours that is the sum total of most driver’s education training programs.  If you had to have someone selling your services or your product, who would you prefer: The employee who just transferred into the sales department or the sales department’s top seller, who, by the way, has been doing sales for more than 5 years (which would translate to about 10,000 hours of time if you multiply 52 weeks x 40 hours x 5 years)?

No one gets good at anything without practice – and lots of it. The more we practice, the better we get. We need to think through learning design very carefully if we really want learners to get better at what we’re trying to teach them. Companies don’t have 5 years to train the new sales guy, so we have to come up with a design that allows as much practice as possible in as short a period of time as possible.

How our learning design impacts this

When our designs are all “tell,” and no “do,” then we are setting learners up to be absolutely no better at doing something after training than they were before training – even if we provided lots of great information or “reference” material. And when we pretend we can make people good at selling, managing, troubleshooting, etc. by creating and delivering a 60-minute e-course or 1/2-day classroom session for them to take,  then we’re just plain silly.

What about what you do? How many hours did it take you to get good at it? How can we do a better job of helping people actually get good at something through the learning solutions we devise?

  • Stephen

    This research runs much deeper than Gladwell’s sketch of it in in Outlier. The 10,000 hour rule simply emphasises the fact that like almost everything in life, those who persevere with focus and passion win in the end. I believe with every fiber in my body that perseverance will always win; but not just dogged perseverance. I believe it takes total commitment, total faith, total confidence, and a never-flagging enthusiasm. 10,000 hours of doubt and fear will not cut it. I worry that learning professionals will overlook this very critical fact in the 10,000 hour rule.

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  • patrick

    I am a corporate “trainer” and instructional designer – I think the issue is that deep learning comes from within. You cannot train a Mozart. Desire comes from within. You may stimulate it or encourage it but PLEASE dont confuse training with learning and acquiring mastery. Apples and Oranges, babe! Pretty useless discussion actually.

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  • This is really good Steven!