The 10,000 Hour Rule In Context

There was research and then there was Gladwell..and then the Gladwell acolytes…and then the Gladwell detractors and then we were left with a number.

10,000 hours.

You need 10,000 hours to master something….or do you?

Here’s another opinion.  From the trenches, based on no scientific data whatsoever, but operating solely in the area of personal experience.

First off – mastery as a term is deceptive at best.

I’m highly suspicious of anyone who calls themselves a master musician, because I’ve never seen anyone who operated at a level of mastery that identified themselves as such.  The people who play at the highest levels are often the ones who can tell you exactly what they can’t do and still struggle with the demands of whatever instrument they have.

Yes you need time – but it has to be focused time

I know a lot of people who started playing guitar when I did.  They’ve easily put 10,000 hours in on their instrument.  They’re marginally better than they were when they first started.  There are several reasons why:

  • They got one thing down and never expanded upon it.  If you ever listen to me practice, it rarely sounds very good.  There’s a reason for that – when you’re practicing you’re supposed to push yourself beyond your current capacity.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked by a practice room where someone was just playing all the stuff they already knew how to do and were convinced that they were really getting better.    If you ever go to a blues jam – you will always find that guy who’s playing the same thing over and over again on every tune.  Come back next week and you’ll hear it again.  It’s like you’re listening to a human sampler.  If you never push yourself – you will never get better.


  • 10,000 hours needs both focus and context.  What are you spending 10,000 hours working on?  The person spending 2,000 hours on focused goals that integrate skill sets will generally run laps around the person who put an unfocused 10,000 hours in.


  • It’s daily work – often on fundamentals.  Really.  It’s putting consistent focused time in every day that yields results.  Itzhak Perlman still practices scales 4-5 hours a day.  Trust me, he knows those scales everywhere there is to play them on the violin – but mastery is in going deep into areas that few other people are willing to commit to.


  • You’ll need models and or mentors.  No one is an island.  You’ll need to emulate other people to get to the unique combination of influences and skills that will create your unique artistic stamp.


  • A big portion of the time required for mastery goes into developing aesthetic.  I can teach you the technical aspects of guitar playing in a relatively short period of time, but it’s going to take me a lot longer to teach you how to play well.


A musician was once relating to me the story of how pedagogy was handled in the part of India he was from.  “If you wanted to learn tabla.  someone would make an introduction and that person would handle all elements of the terms of study (payment, etc).  That was never discussed between teacher and student.  Then, you would go to the guru’s house and you might not touch a tabla for a year.  You would be cutting wood and doing all sorts of manual labor around the house – but the lessons would be going on around you and subconsciously the sounds and rhythms would be working their way into your ear.

Then one day you might get a lesson and learn some basic rhythms.   It might be a three hour lesson to get some basics together and then there would be some follow up spot checks to see how you were progressing.   Once you were ready you’d get another lesson and that would eventually become a regular event – but all during that time you’d be absorbing what was happening around you and starting to develop a sense of how things are supposed to sound – that way you know what sounds you are trying to create.”

A Rag is a DEEP thing.  If you’re just running the notes up and down, you’re not playing a Rag. It’s not just a collection of notes, each one is a world that contains melodies, phrases and even times of day that they’re to be played that define it.  You can learn some of the phrases relatively quickly but really knowing the Rag is a whole different thing, and a whole different time frame.

Aashish Khan once told me that his grandfather made him stay on one particular Rag for a year.  To put that into context, imagine practicing C major scales and phrases for 12 hours a day for a year and at each stage having your teacher tell you, “You’re not ready yet.”  Could you keep pushing forward in the face of that adversity?

Here’s the thing:

Very little is impossible.  The amazing thing about acquiring any skill set is that it’s about breaking complex motions down into its simplest components, mastering each one of them in a vacuum and then integrating them into a larger context.

Bukowski once said, “Endurance is more important than the truth.”  What I think he meant by that was that no one starts off as a brilliant writer/guitarist/anything.  There’s a long period of time that you’re going to be bad at something when you take it on, but the people who keep at it eventually get better.  Some of them even get to be great and become the very thing they were trying to be.

Mastery is largely about learning how to acquire a skill set.  If you’ve gotten good at playing guitar, it will probably not take you as long to get good at say, mandolin.  I’d argue even further that if you’re a great instrumentalist, you’ll probably pick up something like cooking at a high level much faster than someone who has not acquired mastery in a specific area.

Finally, I’d argue that mastery is a reflection of self.  It’s not about being able to play a scale the fastest or having the hippest lines over a chord progression.  It’s a cumulative process that uses something (playing guitar for example) as a means for getting to the best version of you that’s possible.  It’s not about mastering a Rag for example, it’s about your individual expression within that Rag.  It’s about where you are in a given moment of time and about what you have to say within that medium.

Mastery isn’t about guitar.  It’s about you.

To master anything

You’ll need time.

You’ll need focus.

You’ll need challenging things to work on.

It’s best to get crackin’ now!

As always, thanks for reading!