“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
~Madeleine L’Engle

The 10,000 Hour Rule Isn’t True

Since publishing his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell has taken quite a few lashings from critics. One science writer in particular, Christopher Chabris—who incidentally helped defrock Jonah Lehrer—suggested Gladwell intentionally promotes bad science to manipulate people just so he can sell more books.

Another author, David Epstein, writer of The Sports Gene, argued that “the 10,000 hour rule” which Anders Ericsson coined and Gladwell popularized* in his bestselling book may not be as true as everyone was led to believe. Sure, practice is important, he says, but all the practice in the world is useless without innate talent. Runners who start out slow (or writers who start out bad, for that matter) don’t become world class, no matter how many hours of practice they put in.


Photo by dvidshub

Talent Versus Practice

The Write Practice, of course, was built on the idea that to become a great writer, you must practice writing deliberately. So I was intrigued to read Gladwell’s response to this claim against the 10,000 hour rule. It’s worth reading.

In his article, Gladwell cites a study by Herbert Simon and William Chase, who say:

There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…

There are no instant experts, and this is true, Gladwell concludes, of all “cognitively complex activities… because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed.”

Ten-thousand hours may not be a “rule.” It could be as easily called the 50,000 hour rule. Regardless, what’s certain is the rule of practice.

“In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.”

The Write Practice

I would include writing as a cognitively complex activity, wouldn’t you?

And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to become grandmasters of the written word. Perhaps it will take 10,000 hours or 50,000, but we’ll get there.

We practice every day, six days a week because we want to be among the best, because we are writers. It’s who we are. We just write.

We dismiss procrastination and fear of failure. We reject writer’s block. We practice.

Yes, it’s difficult. It’s not always enjoyable. We do it anyway.

This Is the Work of the Writer

I regularly get emails from writers who have great ideas for stories or books. They ask me, “I love this idea, but when I start writing, I get lost. I can never finish the pieces I start.”

Of course you can’t. You haven’t practiced enough.

This is why The Write Practice exists: to help you complete your ideas, to help you write the books you’ve always wanted to write. Unfortunately, we don’t have many tips or magic formulas to help you. We just offer the hard rule of practice.

Someday, years from now, perhaps after 10,000 hours of practice, you will realize, astonished, that not only are you a writer, you are a good writer. A really good writer. And then you will write the book you always knew you could.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll join us in practice.

Do you think the 10,000 hour rule is true?


Since we started The Write Practice, we’ve published over 750 articles about writing. For your practice today, choose an article from The Write Practice archives and spend fifteen minutes practicing.

Happy writing. 🙂

*I originally wrote Gladwell coined the term, “10,000 hour rule,” though the observation was first made by Simon and Chase. Thanks to Richard Finn for setting me straight.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • mooderino

    Gladwell’s 10,000 rule doesn’t claim anyone who puts in the time will earn the reward (of becoming a master). It clearly states that someone with talent (you need something more than a whim) still needs to put in the work. And the interesting point is that all those people who go from potential to success happen to all put in roughly the same amount of time. It’s just an observation, not an instruction manual. He uses examples such as the Beatles (who put in the time in Germany before making it big) who were hardly without innate talent. He doesn’t use any examples of some random guy who spent 10,000 hours strumming on a guitar and suddenly turned into Jimmy Page.

    Not understanding the 10,000 hour rule isn’t the same as the rule not working. And bad journalists who make up false claims and then point them out as false aren’t doing anyone a service, least of all themselves.

    • I agree with this. The whole point of his book “Outliers” was to provide a different perspective to the American Dream-type narrative of a lot of success stories. “Poor boy caught a break and then magically became a millionaire.” No, poor boy was one of the few teenagers in America who had the opportunity to practice code all day everyday, honing his talent, and was able to uniquely capitalize on an opportunity when it came (i.e., Bill Gates). Basically not everyone with Bill Gates’ passion and talent would have had the opportunity to become Bill Gates, other things came into play–like practice. That’s not to say, however, that anyone who DID have the opportunity to practice a) would have taken it and b) would have had the talent that led to Gates’ billions.
      In terms of writing, I believe that YES the great writers have practiced for 10,000 hours because they probably started doing it when they were five. Writing child stories as children counts! But. again, only the most passionate probably did so and continued to do so, so there was more to them than just the 10,000 hours of practice.

      • Great call Monica.
        Also Bill Gates played a lot of poker in college, and: business is all about bluffing and screwing the other guy, which – if you look at how MS-DOS got started, (giving Bill Gates his big break) is what happened. LOL
        I mean, not take away the guy was good at stuff, but the skill set of business is interesting. Whoever is better at screwing everyone else over: wins. LOL.

    • I love this comment.
      Maybe it was a `slow news day’ and that journo just wanted to be controversial. 🙂

  • I haven’t practiced here, or any where, much lately. Mostly because of fear. But when I did practice here regularly, and won my stare downs with fear, I grew. Fear never wrote I great book, or so I would imagine. Thank you for nudging us a long, and for shooting strait with us!

    • Yes, we want you back, Beck! 🙂 Thanks for checking in today. Hope all is well with you.

      • I read here much more than I comment! You know what’s surprised me the most is success. It’s scarier than I thought it would be. I wrote a blog post that was picked up by the International Down Syndrome Coalition. It was shared and had thousands of views and now they’ve asked me to contribute monthly, and I’m scared to death! I really need to practice!

        • Just wanted to say Congrats Beck. Very exciting. Well done.

  • staci troilo

    I always looked at it this way: You aren’t going to spend 10,000 hours on something you don’t love, and chances are if you don’t have some talent at it — whatever it is — you aren’t going to log that many hours at it. Not real working hours, anyway. Dabbling hours, maybe. Enjoyment hours, sure. But practicing, working hours? No. You’ll get bored or frustrated first. To reach 10,000 quality working hours requires a combination of talent, time, and desire to succeed, and only a person with love for craft (whatever the craft might be) will do that.

    • Good distinction between dabbling and deliberate practice, Staci. Yes, it certainly does require passion, doesn’t it? Or else a very strict parent! I wonder though if the practice creates the passion, not the other way around? When you’re really good at something, it’s easier to enjoy it, right?

      • staci troilo

        I can think of a few things my parents made me practice when I was young that merely breeded in me a deep hatred for those particular pasttimes. No surprise, those were things for which I had no noticeable talent to speak of. But that was me…

  • EtienneT2013

    I think the concept of deliberate practice is a more focused approach than simply adhering to “practicing as much as possible”. What deliberate practice requires is focusing on your weaknesses. Practice deliberately to strengthen the areas that you struggle in. The problem is that if you have a “bad start”, no amount of practice will help. If you are born with short arms, you may never swim as fast as someone like Michael Felps. If you were taught horrible form in your golf swing as a child, no amount of repetition will lead you to one day eclipsing Tiger Woods unless you make key changes. I think this is what some people do not internalize when they read Gladwell. You can write all day every day, but if you do not study and practice your grammar skills, or break down the bad habits of passive language, sloppy sentence structure, etc, you will not really improve that much.

  • Jane Endacott

    Joe, thanks for covering this topic, and there are some good comments here so far. Mooderino, that the practice doesn’t guarantee success, only that the masters had to put in practice in order to get good at it. PJ Reece, struggling through three screenplays but being the only one to do it.

    I started writing when I was twelve and filled countless notebooks until I was in college. It was all garbage, but it was my practice. From college to now, I’ve written several stories several times over, and I’m a better writer than I was when I was twelve. It doesn’t matter whether I put in 10,000 hours or 3,000 or 20,000. The point is that I have always practiced and continue to practice. No, it’s not a formula for success, but I’m not going to learn to write through osmosis, either.

    • Thanks Jane. I like the idea of writing stories over and over. To me, that’s a great example of deliberate practice.

    • Von Rupert

      That’s awesome about writing the same story many times, Jane! I do think it makes a difference. Just for practice, I write the same paragraph again and again. Or I take a Hemingway paragraph or a Bradbury scene and try to copy it using different subject matter. The bottom line is what you said: we’re not going to learn to write through osmosis.

  • Fernando

    Joe, I like your writings. I’m a recent subscriber, but I’ve enjoyed the content so far.

    I grew very fond of Gladwell’s theory (although I’m aware it’s not actually his). It looks perfectly clear to me that anyone could achieve master level with that amount of practice (considering the person has the minimum requirements for that – a pianist is better with hands and a runner is better if he has legs). And it’s also easy to see that in the real world.

    It doesn’t matter to me if he manipulated the facts. The essence is more important – because you have to practice. A LOT. And not many people are willing to put the work it’s required to see REAL progress.

    As you put, some talent is necessary, but we are naturally drawn to things we like to do (Robert Greene, by the way, told us that in order to achieve mastery, you have to resist the temptation to remain in your comfort zone).

    I’m not so good with sports, so I’ll probably never try to be a world class athlete. But I spent most of my youth writing, which means it’s something I could do for a living.

    His main achievement, in my opinion, is to help people really understand that, in order to be good, you have to practice a lot. Seems obvious, but many people don’t do that and complain they aren’t getting the results.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Lisa Buie-Collard

    Practice is what it is almost all about, steady writing, but, as you said, even that won’t help a bad writer become good if they don’t have the capability of learning as they write/practice. Doing the novel writing this month on nanowrimo has given me a new appreciation for what it means to write EVERY day. It does grease the wheels and make the next day easier. I’m glad I did it this year. Will probably do it again next year as well.

    • Interesting point. Can you elaborate on how it makes the next day easier? That could be a post! Chekhov once said of his brother that he wrote himself out because he wrote too little.

      • Lisa Buie-Collard

        I can see Chekhov’s point, because I’ve lived that. When I don’t write every day my well runs dry, like if I don’t keep going, then there is nothing priming the pump.If I pump every day, I have water every day. The next day is easier, for me, because for one, I leave off at a place I’m eager to get back to for whatever reason (perhaps I want to see where the thread I’m working on leads me, or I’m in the middle of something really dramatic happening, etc.), and two, I have no blank page to stare at in the morning. Before I even get to the computer I’m already thinking about where I (we) might be going today. Also, if I’ve had a particularly smashing day on word count, I’m tempted to try and beat it the next day or at least break even. So, I guess that’s three reasons writing every day makes sense to me now.

        • The Striped Sweater

          I’ve had the same experience, Lisa.

          • Lisa Buie-Collard

            We’re in good company!

  • The Striped Sweater

    Right on, Joe. I think people oversimplify the 10,000 hour rule. My read of Outliers was that mastery requires 1) favorable circumstances 2) practice, and 3) innate talent. Innate talent may be the least important factor, but it is still an essential factor for greatness. I think (hope) we all realize we’re not going to become a Woolf or a Hemingway based solely on hard work, but we’re not going to get anywhere without it. The tripod of success is a good environment, practice, and natural ability. Geniuses don’t happen without all three.

  • Von Rupert

    Yes, the 10,000 rule is true, but the number is arbitrary because it will differ from person to person. Yesterday on Facebook I posted a photo of my daughter’s art practice. This is what she does: she studies a famous artist, picks one of his paintings, and then copies
    it or some aspect of it. Over and over again. I can go down to her
    room on any day and find a half dozen or more different depictions of the
    same picture. (which is what I posted on FB) She might use cool colors for one, warm colors for
    another. She might try acrylic paint for one, pastels for another. She
    isn’t afraid to try again. She isn’t afraid to copy. And she learns.
    Another daughter practices music. How many times does she sing a song
    before she has it as close to perfect as possible? Hundreds.
    She records herself, listens for the problems, listens for the
    successes. She listens and she gets better. She listens to the masters singing the same song, rewinding and listening again and again to the parts she struggles with. This is deliberate practice, and it’s every bit as important for writers. If we don’t sit down and write regularly, how will we know what aspects of the craft we need to practice more? If we don’t share some of our practice sessions, how will we know what parts of our message are clear and which are vague?

    • Hi Von
      I see your point but I dont think the right word is that the number of hours is “arbitrary”, as that is like saying it is `random’.
      eg That would (incorrectly) suggest – One person might become Charles Dickens after 1 hour of practice. Or another might after exactly 10,000 and another after 100,000. – That’s not really right. (The scientific research on creativity, including fiction writing, paitning, every crreative domain that is complex)

      There is a minimum, and the AVERAGE for most complex domains (maths, science, novels, films) is around 10 years… Poetry is 2 years as you can write a 3-line haiku and suddenly be hailed as a genius of haiku. But who really cares? Its such a small amount of time and effort to write 3 lines. Try writing 100,000 words in a njovel and making sure everything is right (including spelling, grammar and emotion you are evoking in the reader, etc). It takes so much time!

      The reason is, with `complex creative domains’ (art, music, science etc) it takes around 10 years to `learn all the rules’. To `internalize the creative domain’. Which includes – not just the practice, but soooo much reading, reading and reading, ie reading/learning/knowing/understanding all of `the rules’, learning them all, by trial and error, and also thinking about why you love a piece of writing, and analyzing “What the artist *did* there, exactly” etc. These are all so many `bits of information’ you can’t just sit down and read them all in 1 hour and then spit out “War and Peace”. The human mind can only handle 111 bits of info per second. eg – It takes time to read the dictionary. Unfortunately – we cant (YET) upload it in seconds like Neo in The Matrix, LOL.

      And we are certainly not born knowing it. You have to learn language as a kid.

      Likewise if your daughter is obsessed by doing these patinings, she may become awesome at it – over time – as she clearly is doing it for the love of it. ie Flow Theory in creativity.

      It’s because of how the brain works. It depends what gives each person pleasure. Some peoples brains get satisfaction/a buzz from painting. Others couldnt care less, it does nothing for them, doesnt give them the pleasure hit. It’s a complex bio-socio-cultural mix.

      The biggest favour you can do your kids (as you obviously know) is help them find out what they love doing – and then let (enable) them do as much of it as they want. Mozart was composing at age 4. All these masters of creativity started out really young. (of course there is the odd exception like Grandma Moses, but those are not nearly as frequent as the masters who started out as kids.)

      Anyway, so yeah. Good stuff, hope your daughter has a ball.

  • I’m a fan of Gladwell, but have a big problem with his 10,000 hours theory. Like everyone else here, I agree that deliberate practice is the key to anything. And, the more natural talent you have, the more likely you are to practice.

    My problem is that seeing the number 10,000 spread all over the media can be discouraging. I don’t have enough hours in my lifetime to spend 10,000 hours on very many things. But I’m an incredibly curious person and don’t want to limit the things I explore because of someone’s arbitrary number.

    My solution is to ignore the number and decide to try new things even if I don’t know if I’m going to have time to become a ‘master.’ Maybe mastery is an inflated concept. Maybe comfort and competence are good for those things that interest us, but which aren’t passions.

    As a counter to Gladwell’s book, I read Josh Kaufman’s “The First Twenty Hours.” It’s an interesting perspective.

    Regardless, deliberate practice is still key, and writing is one of those things that I’m willing to spend lots of time on.

    • Hi Rhonda

      You raise a fascinating point, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

      The “ten-year rule in Creativity” is an old established scientific fact. (see; DK Simonton, and all the world experts on Creativity). That Gladwell reinforced it / explained it in slightly different terms is no matter.

      But — to tell people up front – guess what, this is going to take AT LEAST 10 years for you – and even then we might find out you havent made it.

      …it IS discouraging, LOL!

      But that is also, where Prof Csikszentmihalyi’s `flow’ theory comes in right? (see his books on Flow, and Creativity)

      ie Creative geniuses (Mozart, EInstein, Austen, Dickens, Dan Brown etc) were all – people who did the activity, purely for its own sake, as they enjoy it so much.
      eg People like Tolstoy, Austen etc just loved the act/process of writing, as otherwise – they wouldnt have persisted with it, until they `made’ it…

      So in a way I think it IS super-discouraging… for anyone starting out

      But – maybe that’s good. If you love something, and you find it addictive for its own sake (which is basically what flow theory is about) then you don’t care (at all) if it takes you 10 years, 20 ears, 100 years and still never `make it’, you are doing the thing/activity (whatever it may be, writing, dancing, singing, basket-weaving) as you just love the process, not the goal as such,
      (Of course the goal is also good, as is money – but: is not `the end’.)

      It is all about `the means’, not the end… If you hate (ie do not enjoy) the act/process of writing, but you also wish you were a famous writer, your life will suck – as you wont enjoy it along the way. (Writing for 10 years, or 20 years or 50 years, or for, however long it takes)

      Example – Stanley Kubrick, the master of all cinema, (not just my opinion) wasn’t paid a cent for Directing his first 5 feature films. He did it because he loved it. His 6th one, they started paying him. That kind of passion, patience, persistence and obsession is kind of “What it takes.” That kind of `hunger’.

      I think – that’s what all this scientific Creativity research tells us – If you would just do the activity – whether someone ever paid you or not, is the key…

      See: (the Creativity research, here, for eg)

      In fact, usually it’s even the opposite – many Creatives have to *pay* to do what they love! For years!!! LOL.

      With Creativity: Only Do, whatever makes you happy.

      – Who really cares if you get paid? Just find a hobby you love, and If it turns out you’re great at it, then – probably, (not always) someone will pay you for your creations.

      Supply-and-demand really.

      Then again hey – what do all these scientists know. Maybe the universe is all an illusion. Maybe I’m an illusion. Still, it’s an interesting and even fascinating illusion. Also it usually smells good. Especially when there is bacon.

    • Mardra Sikora

      I agree. It’s daunting to think it will take 10,000 hours to create worthwhile art (or work of any kind). As a person who changed my life’s direction at 40, I wonder, is there time to get this right? And how many hours have I already put in while my primary focus was elsewhere, do those hours count? Is it really a numbers game in the end?

  • Hey Joe, All

    “Do you think `the 10k-hour rule’ is true?”

    No —- I know (am positively-certain) it is true. 🙂

    It was “the 10-year rule in (the scientific study of) creativity” long before Gladwell wrote/published `Outliers’… !

    See: http://storyality.wordpress.com/an-index-to-this-blog/

    StoryAlity #6 – What is Creativity and How Does It Work?

    StoryAlity #7 – On “the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity

    StoryAlity #8 – More on the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity

    But also, exactly as other Commenters here have said — If you don’t have certain bio-socio-cultural predispositions (i.e. `talents’) then – no amount of hours will make you `crack’ it. (ie Master your chosen domain) ie In: anything. (Any creative professional domain, be it fiction-writing, chess, dance, Olympic sports, physics, maths, filmmaking, bog-snorkelling, etc)

    But that is why sites such as yours (Joe Bunting!) are so important and valuable.

    …It’s not just the amount of practice (eg that `ten years, on average’) but – doing *different* targeted exercises – that purposely stretch and strengthen you in different directions, so that when you are confronted with that same creative problem in your own writing (eg – in your novel/masterpiece, etc) you are all trained up – and ready to knock it outta the park. (eg Theme, Character, Dialog, Premise, Structure, Plot, Tone, Voice, Emotion, Grammar, Spelling, Metaphor, Symbolism, etc etc etc etc… Writing is incredibly complex. if it was easy/simple, we’d all be Tolstoy/Dickens/Dan Brown/William Faulkner/Jane Austen/Stephen King/pick your own personal-fave famous successful writer.)

    So, brilliant site/blog Joe B, keep up the awesome work

    (And of course, everyone here.)



  • Very useful and supportive article. I wish I can do all of that in a short period of time. But really is not that simple.

  • “… all the practice in the world is useless without innate talent.” I disagree with that statement. I have no natural talent for writing at all. Yet, a fellow Practicer once opined that my first draft writings were better than a lot of published stuff out there. I’m fully aware that that is an opinion (as I mentioned :D) However, I haven’t gotten to me that “good” without a ton of practice and study. I’ve been writing since I was 7, and I’ve been studying the craft of writing since 18. I’m 33 now. Is that 10,000 hours? *shrugs* Maybe.

    But, I can tell you that I wasn’t born a writer. It’s something that I have put a lot of work into to become better. Just like anything else out there: It takes time, sweat, and dedication.

  • Adelaide B. Shaw

    I came across this blog surfing writing blogs to see what others writers write and how they set up their blogs. The point of practice is well taken. Remember the old joke: Someone asks How do I get to Carnegie Hall? The answere is: Practice, practice, practice.
    I’ve been practicing haiku for over 45 years and fiction for 27 years. I’m still learning and honing my craft. I don’t know if I’ve put in 10,000 hours or 50,000 hours, but I’ve put in many, many hours on writing. I carry a notebook always and jot down ideas as they come, sentences, paragraphs or the beginnings of a story or a complete poem if I’m waiting in the doctor’s office or sitting in a cafe having coffee.
    I just began a writing blog and hope you will visit. I plan to include this blog on my Blog List.
    Adelaide B. Shaw

  • oddznns

    I don’t know about the actual number of hours but I agree with Etienne that it is about deliberate and conscious practice.

  • I’d add that 10,000 or even 50,000 hours of practice still might not be enough if the practice isn’t focused on learning and applying the explicit techniques of the craft. You could spend a lifetime diddling away at trying to make your characters “three dimensional,” but if you don’t know how to accomplish that task explicitly, specifically, through your personal take at implementing a defined and proven approach, than you will remain at the mercy of your subconscious…and good luck with that!

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  • I had to laugh when I saw the bad runner analogy. I was in the army and actually managed to run slower than I walked (yes, really, I was that bad). I always wished that someone would have given me lessons on how to run better. But in hindsight, they wouldn’t have helped. The cause of my poor running was flat feet, and no amount of lessons would have changed that. Some things can’t be taught, no matter how much practice you do.

    I knew a writer who had quite a bit of practice. He was pretty good with the language and the grammar. What he couldn’t do at all was tell as story or have engaging characters. That’s the more important aspect of writing fiction. Grammar can be fixed, but if the story isn’t there or the characters are wooden, practicing grammar and story structure is not going to help. You have to practice the right things to get good.

  • Adelaide Shaw

    I agree, writers need to practice writing. We need to do some every day, even if we don’t feel inspired. Do some free association, pick a childhood memory, even write about the frustration of writing. Just write. And keep a notebook with you to jot down ideas as they come to you.
    Practice observing, too. This is just as important as practicing writing. How do people look? What are they wearing? What are their facial features? Their body type? Eavesdrop. Yes, eavesdrop, but without being noticeable. If people are talking loudly enough for you to hear, they can’t be revealing secrets. (They shouldn’t be, anyway) Then write what you observe.

  • Sleepyeyeguy

    Laszlo Polgar raised all three of his daughters with rigorous chess training, and all three of them are very strong players and two of them are world class Grandmasters (one was the strongest woman chess player in the world at her peak (she might be surpassed now by Hou Yifan)