Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The 10,000 Hour Rule

I recently read a book entitled Outliers in which the author, Malcolm Gladwell, tries to explain why some people, the wunderkinds, are phenomenally more successful than the rest of us. Even though talent or even genius is a component of the success of Olympic athletes, captains of industry like Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, and Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and musical superstars like the Beatles, Gladwell maintains that these and many more examples of world class success have come only after 10,000 hours of work in their field.

10,000 hours! That’s a lot of hours.

And on top of that, those hours have typically been invested by the time our heroes are in their early 20’s.

How does that work for sailing? Our little hero starts at 7 years old and sails about 15 -20 hours a week over a nine week summer vacation season. By the time he reaches high school, he has about 1000 hours. In high school, there may be two 10 weeks school year seasons, spring and fall, in addition to the summer season. At that same 15 – 20 hours a week, he now does 500 hours per year. After high school and college sailing, he is up to about 5000 hours. Then the Olympic campaign starts, and a few years later he could be a real contender.

Now let’s take the case of a hopeless mediocrity like me who starts sailing when he’s 30. The aspiring sailor has a demanding job, he’s raising some kids, and he sails a couple of days a week for a total of maybe 6 hours. Over a long six month season, he accumulates maybe 150 hours. At that rate, it will take 33 years to equal the college graduate avid sailor’s experience. If we double our pace, adding lots of practice, we can cut that to 16 years.

Is it any wonder we can’t keep up with the top of the fleet, particularly in lasers where the top sailors are Olympic hopefuls? The wonder is that we can sail as well as we do with such a meager time commitment.

The 10,000 hour rule shows us clearly that our destiny is limited, but it also shows us that good old fashioned hard work is a prerequisite for excellence and success. Time and focused work is required for everyone to get better. Even the most gifted won’t make it to the top without huge amounts of time invested. Who would think a guy with 8000 hours of experience could still get a little better with another 2000? But if practice pays off at the very top, very flat part of the learning curve, imagine how much good it does down on the steeper parts of the curve where we mediocrities dwell?

So why are you still reading this? Get out there and practice!


  1. I love Gladwell's books but haven't read Outliners yet. I really want to. But this is a great post thinking through the numbers. Makes sense.

  2. All of which illustrates why my children will outstrip their father (a hopeless mediocrity who started sailing seriously at 30) at sailing before they get their driver's licenses.