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The Myth of “10,000 Hours”

Published: 23/03/2020

I’ve been trying to implement some professional development time during this quiet spell. So, I’ve started down the path of trying to catch-up on all the podcasts that I’ve bookmarked. In one of the podcasts that I listened to, the guest, a world-renowned architectural photographer, was espousing the value of experience and practice. To make her point, she noted the oft-cited notion that one has to put in 10,000 hours of practice to be considered an "expert" or a "master" in their field. It is a concept that was made popular by Malcom Gladwell, in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, in which he cites the work of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s research found that many of the most advanced violin students at a large music academy had put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve their level of excellence. Gladwell took this tidbit and ran with it, putting forth the notion that the Beatles put in that amount of time before making it big, as did giants in other fields like technology.

Ericsson objected that the number 10,000 was arbitrary and that Gladwell's statement was taken out of context. Nevertheless, the notion that one needed 10,000 hours to become an expert in one's field, caught on and over the years, it has developed almost a life of its own, partly because it's such a provocative statement that uses a nice, easy-to-remember, round number. However in my humble opinion, it’s complete hogwash! The reason for writing this post is that, with virtually all of us being grounded in our work right now and hopefully using some of the time to practice our craft, I wanted to share some research that’s been done on the importance of practice; specifically, how one practices.

The Key Variables in Learning and Developing Expertise

Aside from the fact that Gladwell’s claim of needing to put in 10,00 hours to become an expert is not scientifically proven, another key reason that his rule of thumb bothers me so, is that it assumes that just putting in the time can make anyone an expert at something. This is simply not true. Steven Covey, who’s written many best-sellers for the business community once said (and I'm paraphrasing): “When someone tells you they have 10 years’ experience, it’s important to find out if they have 10 years’ experience or one year's experience, ten times.” It's an interesting bit of insight/wisdom that speaks to the fact that we must not be seduced into thinking that time spent in practice, is the sole determinant of advancement.

To prove this point, consider research done by Drs. Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli, both of whom are cognitive psychologists. They've studied chess players who’ve been deemed to be masters in the sport. They’ve found tremendous variability in the amount of time it took them to reach “master” status. According to their research, the time ranged from 728 hours, all the way to 16,120 hours! Other research that I’ve found says that practice time makes up only 20-25% of the variability in determining "expertise" and that there are other significant variables at play. First, is one’s age when actually starting a given endeavor. For instance, it’s generally accepted that there is a window, early in childhood, in which it’s easier for human-beings to learn a complex task, such as language acquisition. Genetics is also a variable. For example, research has shown that there’s a far higher correlation in artistic skills in identical twins vs. fraternal twins. This leads me to the main thrust of this post.

It’s Not About How Much You Practice; It’s About How You Practice

So, what’s the key? Research done by Dr. Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist out of Stanford University, found that “deliberate experimentation” in one’s practice is vital when trying to develop expertise and mastery. Consider that in proper scientific methodology, researchers are supposed to form a hypothesis, test it, examine the results, and from that analysis, develop a new hypothesis that can be tested.

In other words, we should be practicing with purpose, keeping in mind the importance of experimentation. This can take many forms. For example:

  • Find out what happens to the quality of your images when you bounce a flash at different angles and different power-levels.
  • If you’re accustomed to shooting flash at every shoot, then capture images in your own home without using flash at all. What impact did these images have on you? What's the impact be on your editing? Can you experiment with your editing workflow?
  • If you use a blending approach for your twilight exteriors, then experiment with Scott Hargis’ get-it-in-camera approach and see what happens by simply taking advantage of those magical few minutes when the exterior light is balanced with the interior lighting. Then, examine your favorite image from your practice session and note the time of the shot from the EXIF data to see how many minutes after sunset that photo was taken. Can this be a foundation of a formula for getting better twilight shots?
  • Ask your spouse or one of your kids to walk through a scene you’re shooting, in which you try using different shutter speeds, to figure out your own preferences for achieving a blur-effect in your model. Then, at your next shoot, activate the self-timer on your camera and try walking through the shot yourself to see what kind of result you get. Who knows ... maybe your client might like adding this type of distinctive, editorial-type flare in one of the pics within their MLS listing.

Anyway, the possibilities are endless, as they say!  In any case, I hope this post has been helpful to you in thinking through how you practice and, hopefully, will inform your Pro-D time. I’d love to hear about any additional “experiments” that you’re trying/have tried in your photography in order to get better. I’m sure our community would benefit from this sort of sharing!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

5 comments on “The Myth of “10,000 Hours””

  1. Tony/Brandon,

    I am loving this time in our life where we can and forced to reflect on techniques etc. Thank you for posting this Tony, very interesting and thought provoking!

    Be safe!


  2. When I was young in this business, and in business in general even before this business, I thought 10,000 hrs sounded like an incredibly long time. Certainly too long for my particular character traits - impatient, impetuous, self-important, egotistical, and independent.

    As a 58yr old, I realize that at 10,000 hrs, which if you're putting around 60hrs a week in (not uncommon for the self-employed), that's only about 3.5 years. To which I LAUGH. LOUDLY. LIKE THE VERY LOUD DRUNK GUY AT THE END OF THE BAR in an Ozzie pub, who just said...

    "Ah've made luve longer than that, and aI was certainly nuo master of it. Just a quick study..." wink <<**even better if you imagine it with a cocky British or Scottish accent**

    Literally, I have forgotten more about photography than most people will ever know, or have even imagined. I'm a level ten 3D pyramid of ninja-like mental prowess. I'm not even sure of what I know, but I know I know it, because it pops out randomly, like an Alexian request for obscure data buried in the deep state. It's there, and not by accident. You think Ron Woods & David Gilmour hasn't done their 10,000? Their probably at 10 million, like me. Three fathoms deep in doctorate. Thats why they can give a great impromptu interview and be interesting for its entirety, no matter how long it lasts.

    I have a bookshelf with books I can't remember buying. But I read them all. Photography, Art, and Architecture. Horst, Avedon, Leiter, Liebovitz, Newton, Maisel, Meyerowitz, Shore, Iooss, Crewdson, Watson, Adams, McCurry. A fraction of the whole. They serve as a foundation. History of process, evolution of style, who's who and why they were the who, who mastered what, who was obsessed, variety vs tunnel visioned, the evolution of equipment and process. Every little seemingly useless fact, from which I can draw on. At 10,000 hours, I hadn't even gotten my feet wet.... in hindsight.

    This is 2020. I took my first professional photos in '92. Occasionally, I run across them. I rememberer thinking I was the shit. A prodigy. A Savant. Irreplaceable. **insert drunken bar laugh** What a load of crap. The images were filled with embarrassing levels of nativity. It's not just that they lacked mature technical skill, but pictures are 1000 words, and I had, at the time, very little to say apparently.

    The sheer irony of it, is that by 2007, so 15 years in, the equivalent of 42857 hours, I was on fire doing the best work I've ever done, only to realize 5-8 years later, so another 25,000 more hours, that the average consumer of my work had little of no understanding of any of it. From Speed Graphic to RB67 to A7riii to iPhone, darkroom to lightroom, still to motion. That's some range.

    By my calculation, I must be at around 81,000 hours now, none of which were passive. Those hours are for me. The basis of my life. My pursuit to master something. Invaluable. What I am. A disciple of photographic discipline. Easily replaceable by someone with a 120hrs under their ambitious belt. 🙂

  3. Great points! I love Dweck (and Gladwell not so much).
    Also, I feel I've noticed some photographers take lots of pictures over the years and apparently not really improve. (But who am I to say.) Surprisingly, the ubiquitous advice to "practice practice practice" may actually be counter-productive.

  4. Before photography, I worked with a Fortune 500 company as an executive coach and organization development director. In those days I learned a valuable lesson ....the mantra that “practice makes perfect”just isn’t true. What is true is that “practice makes permanent” and “PERFECT practice makes perfect.” Along the same lines is a great concept from my daughter’s choir teacher...”a professional doesn’t practice until they get it right....they practice until it’s never wrong.” So, let’s use this time to practice - with intention.

  5. Great info, Tony! You are an example of quality practice over quantity with your own photography quality. Tacey is another one who got up there quickly in quality.

    Curious, does shutter count come into play here? Say if I have 800,000 shutter counts versus someone at 400k, I'd be twice as good? 'Cause that's easy to achieve with today's cameras 😉

    Your seminar with Brandon was priceless, always that Tony voice in my head...

    Thanks again for the great info 🙂

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