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How to Master Skills: The Key Factor

If you want to master skills and reach high level in your pursuits, you’d do very well to apply the 10,000-hour rule ASAP. This is the key to getting good at things.

It’s not that you must put in 10,000 hours to master skills. With 1000 to 5000 hours, you can get pretty damn good. But there is a lot of wisdom to take from this rule, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

What is the 10,000-hour rule? How can we use it to master skills? And what are some of the common pitfalls related to this view of excellence? We’ll cover all these topics and more in this article.

Here’s the core of the issue. A probe into the background of world-class sportsmen, musicians, leaders and businesspeople reveals the secret of high performance: they all spend years and decades working hard to hone their craft and master skills in their field.

You might believe they have a ticket for the express train to high performance, but that’s folly. As researcher John Sloboda says:

There is absolutely no evidence of a fast track for high achievers.

John Sloboda

You see, those we admire do most of this unglamorous work away from the hype of mainstream media. It’s hidden from us when they appear on TV flowing, gliding, performing at a superhuman level in front of thousands.

So the 10,000-hour rule is an excellent barometer for just how much practice it takes to reach mastery in any field. Yet we have to be careful with this rule – it’s tempting to get obsessed with the fabled figure of 10,000 hours.

Let’s start from the beginning. Where did the rule come from?

Anders Ericsson’s Seminal Experiment

The 10,000 hour rule was born when Anders Ericsson performed a study on violinists at the West Berlin Music Academy. This was the broadest investigation yet into skill development, and is now folklore among high performers, sports psychologists and everyone who refuses to believe that success is all about innate talent.

Ericsson divided the violinists into three groups. The first group comprised the very top students, who were destined to become international soloists. The second group was made up of the excellent students, who were to end up in the world’s greatest orchestras. And the final group were teenage students aiming to become music teachers.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Ericsson pondered: why the discrepancy in talent? Were the soloists genetically programmed to be violinists? Were the music teachers doomed to being second-rate musicians from birth? Did the orchestra players lose the natural-talent lottery?

Ericsson’s Findings

Well, Ericsson found the life histories of the subjects to be incredibly similar. They all started to play and receive formal instruction at age 8. In fact, they’d even put in roughly the same total amount of practice.

Here’s the kicker: the only major difference between the violinists was the amount of time they had devoted to serious practice. Remember – we have three groups: future soloists, orchestra players, and the schoolteachers to be. Which group do you think Ericsson observed to have practiced most?

He realised that by age 20, group 3 had practiced 4000 hours, and group 2 had put in an average of 8000 hours, an impressive figure, no doubt. But the group 1 students came out on top, having racked up an astonishing 10,000+ hours of serious practice.

What’s more, there were no exceptions. No students in 2 or 3 had put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, while all group 1 students had done at least that amount.

Let’s hear what Anders Ericsson had to say:

We deny that these differences [in skill level] are immutable; that is, due to innate talent… Instead we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults refect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.

Anders Ericsson


What does this tell us? Quite simply, you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class. And if you do this 10k hours, evidence suggests that you will. Recall that all the 10,000+ hours students were in group 1. No exceptions.

But it also tells us you can become pretty damn good with less. We’ll come back to this point. Similar experiments suggest that 10,000 hours is the magic number that activates world-class competence in myriad fields.

Okay, okay, so 10,000 hours looks like it’s the tipping point. But this is far from the full story. In fact, I’ve found that this rule brings certain downsides. Let’s take a look.

Master Skills: Pitfalls Of 10,000-Hour Rule

10,000-hour rule applies to focused training and deliberate practice

That’s right, focused training and deliberate practice!

This is the biggest mistake we make when it comes to this rule: we often think it’s 10,000 hours of any kind of practice. Under this model, we could be practicing while distracted, messing around, cruising along on autopilot, drinking beer, or talking to a friend. Doesn’t matter, it’s all the same, right?

Wrong! It’s not 10,000 hours of any kind of practice. It’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, where we put every minute deliberately trying to master skills. This is crucial. 10,000 hours of half-assed practice leads you to a decent level. But invest that same amount of time into performance-pushing practice, and you’ll reach world-class performance.

It’s pretty obvious when you give it some thought. If half-assed practice sufficed, we’d all be Formula 1 stars. We all spend hundreds or thousands of hours driving every year. So clearly that isn’t enough for mastery. Why?

We drive on autopilot, paying attention to almost everything but improvement in the art of driving. In fact, we might even get worse over time as we develop bad habits and forget our instructor’s guidance.

The same goes for any number of other skills. Look at your own life. Isn’t it true you’ve stagnated when trying to master skills before, simply because you don’t try to improve?

Pay The Price to Master Skills

If you want to master skills, there’s a price to pay. You need to continually push beyond your current level, no matter how high it may be, and always sweat to attain the next level of excellence.

Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

Anders Ericsson

This is hard work. As any musician or language learner will know, it’s easy to just coast along at our current level. It feels nice, familiar, comforting, and we get to create a cosy home in our current level of expertise. That’s why so many of us dedicate years to our pursuits but don’t get anywhere. We’re not even trying to get anywhere!

We have to be willing to surrender our current level of competence to move on. This is the skill-building analogue of the Zen saying “today’s enlightenment is tomorrow’s mistake”.

The key is to continue building your skillset and performance. What are you lacking? What’s the next level for you? Where do you want to get to? Ask yourselves these questions then build your practice around your answers.

Moving on to the next pitfall…

Master Skills: Don’t Overemphasise the Hours

We have to remember that competence is ultimately about skills and immersion. When it comes down to it, what’s more important – the number of hours we spend or the skills we possess and the value we provide?

I say we should focus less on racking up hours and more on getting really good. We should measure skills, not time. Other variables like our method, resources, teachers, and connection to the pursuit also play a vital role in the level we ultimately achieve. It’s not all about hours, hours, hours. And let’s be honest, a big fat practice-time total is never our goal when we’re learning anything.

The False Final Destination

Using a figure to name a rule that governs the laws of competence and mastery makes it seem that the final total is all that counts. We’re apt to look ahead to 10,000-hour milestone, thinking that once you’ve reached that, it’ll be all rosy.

With your eyes hypnotised by the carrot dangling in the distance, you miss the entire process of mastery. That’s a shame. The journey to high performance is more than about developing your skills – it’s also for learning about yourself, undergoing inner transformation, penetrating the depths of your craft, and making new discoveries.

Climaxes are never as good as you might imagine. And in any case, when you reach your goal, you realise it was only another way station on an endless mountain trail.

I also fervently believe that there is no final destination. Every time you reach a “destination”, you realise how little you know. You realise how puny your previous destination was, like when as a child you revelled over reaching four feet tall and now you’re six foot three.

To me, the feeling that we’ve reached a final destination is a false sense of mastery. You’re a big fish in a small pond. Kill that Buddha – destroy the sense that you’ve “made it” – and get back to work.

It Might Not Even Be True

Let’s face it, researchers love neat numbers, tight conclusions and ideas that seemingly flip the conventional wisdom upside down. And when we’re looking for a specific rule, we’re apt to find it. Besides, all human knowledge is merely an approximation of truth. It’s never complete.

Might it be that the 10,000-hour rule is a myth or factually limited in some respects? I think there’s a chance that is true.

But to me, whether it’s true or not is almost academic when you’re walking the path of mastery. Instead, let’s be pragmatic. If it demotivates you and makes you feel inferior, drop it. If it’s useful for you and helps you orient yourself on the journey, I say you should hold on to it. It encapsulates plenty of wisdom for the learner setting off towards the anti-destination of high performance.

So let’s look at the wonderful wisdom wrapped up in this law.

How to Master Skills: The Wisdom of The 10,000-Hour Rule

It Obliges Us to Be Sober About How to Master Skills

This rule has a lovely grounding effect on me. It forces me to be realistic about my skills and achievements and tames the wild beast of ambition.

If we’re achievement-driven and attracted by sparkling salaries and bursting over the finishing line, it forces us to step back. You simply can’t focus on short-term results under this model. If you want to be among the best, you have to take the slow train.

It reminds us in tough moments that getting good takes hundreds and thousands of hours of dedicated learning. This cuts our current predicament down to size, re-inspiring us.

Mastery can be tedious. You need a certain palette for it. You need to put the hours in. If you don’t, you’re going nowhere. And this rule invites us to develop the infinite patience required for the journey.

Shatters Our Illusion About Innate Talent

The beauty of this theory lies in its merciless destruction of the talent myth. It doesn’t say “only the talented reach 10,000 hours, so only they become world-class.” It’s closer to “You want to get good? 10,000 hours should do the trick!”

The idea that there’s a threshold for excellence casts hefty doubt on our idea that expertise is inherent. We have to question ourselves too. Do we still have a fixed mindset, regarding ourselves to be bound to our current self? Or do we ditch that damaging dictum and turn our attention to the practice, trusting that it’ll bring tremendous transformation?

Invites Us to Master Skills Long-Term

The human habit is to look weeks and months ahead and grasp for immediate solutions to our issues, meaning we never create an inspiring vision for our future.

This rule forces us to drop our tendency to think short-term. It invites us into that strange space: our life 10-30 years from now. Who could I really become if I commit to excellence? How could this transform my life?

In our pursuits and projects, we must shift our focus. We must see that long-term learning brings a growing accumulation of expertise and knowledge. After years on the journey, we become unstoppable.

Shows Our Current Level to Be Irrelevant

When we’re on a plateau in the learning journey or haven’t achieved as much as we imagined, we often fall into negativity, wondering if we’ll ever get good. It’s as though we’ve hit a dead end.

This rule invites us to continue marching forward regardless of how many hours we’ve invested. It shows us that our level is a function of our previous dedication to the craft. And our future level only depends on all our dedication up to that future point.

Trust that all your future work will blow away your current limitations. One day you’ll look back and realise that you were just at an in-between stage in the journey.

Let’s look at how to exploit the 10,000 rule for high performance.

Master Skills: Get The Most From The 10,000-Hour Rule

Don’t Get Obsessed With The Number 10,000

You can still reach enviable levels in your pursuit with a few thousand hours. Besides, is it about numbers, or is it about competence and our embodiment of our learning? Is 10,000 hours really what you want? Or is it competence, fulfilment, knowledge, a sense of achievement? Besides, time is not the only factor. Teachers, resources and your approach also make a big impact.

Focus on Persistence and Patience

Often persistence is the difference between success and failure.

We have an inflated sense of our weaknesses and a modest sense of our capabilities. We think we know what we’re capable of, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when we don’t see the results, we’re apt to quit.

You have to keep going until you reach your goals. Be bold, decided, stubborn. Sometimes it requires burning the boats on the beach. You succeed, or else.

This is particularly crucial at the beginning of the journey when we’re in the dark woods, hacking away with a machete, scrambling to find a path.

Trust that persistence and patience will eventually get you there.

Sometimes it appears that there is a hidden guide whose duty is to test men through all sorts of discouraging experiences. Those who pick themselves up after defeat and keep on trying, arrive; and the world cries, ‘Bravo! I knew you could do it!’ The hidden Guide lets no one enjoy great achievement without passing the persistence test. Those who can’t take it, simply do not make the grade.

Napoleon Hill

Develop Sustainable Habits and Routines to Master Skills

We need a certain continuity in our practice. It’s really no good to go to classes once or twice a week. It needs to be daily. You need to be putting in five hours a week, minimum. If you want to get exceptionally good and fairly quick, go for 15+ hours per week. Just make sure you can sustain it.

Having a regular practice helps the skills become automated. Since you do it every single day of your life, it starts to feel natural. It both brings energy and tames it, keeps you going during low moments, and helps you pace yourself.

It also helps you focus on doing your regular practice rather than the goals themselves. Goal-obsession can often bring tension and anxiety. Try to settle in to your regular practice and let it carry you along. When you aren’t seeing progress, which will be most of the time, your goal is to practice!

You’ll you have a continual sense of achievement and accomplishment even if you’re on a long plateau. And you end up working towards your goals without even realising.

You might like to check out my accompanying video for this article.

So the 10,000-hour rule offers a useful barometer for our level of expertise, but we must handle it with care. Are we continually striving to master skills? Are we enjoying the process? Do we focus on real competence instead of numbers? If so, we’re well on our way to high performance.

Learn More About High Performance With My Article The 5 Secrets Of Achievement And High Performance