Saturday, 23 March 2013

The 10,000 Hour Rule - why practice makes perfect

It is a cliche that practice makes perfect, but in his 2008 book Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell argues that in order for any person to become really good at any cognitively-challenging task, they have to practice a lot. 10,000 hours-worth of practice, in fact.

His argument is simple. Getting good at something takes time. By way of example, he cites the case of The Beatles who performed live in a club in Hamburg more than 1200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, and thereby getting really, really good at what they did.
Gladwell also cites the example of Bill Gates, who met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of just 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.

Gladwell argues that the key to success in any field is largely a matter of practicing, with the proviso that you need constructive feedback so you don't simply practice your mistakes.  So, doing some simple sums, if you practice something for 20 hours a week, it will take you around 10 years to get really expert at it.
Malcolm Gladwell. Photo: Kris Krüg

Gladwell also notes that he himself took exactly 10 years to meet the 10,000-Hour Rule, working as a journalist at the American Spectator magazine and The Washington Post, polishing his craft as a writer.

Animation is no different. Getting good at it takes time and diligence. The Nine Old Men at the Disney Studio became the best by virtue of years of practice, competition - and being pushed by Walt to be the very best they could be.

It's the same for all of us. My father understood this when - in his mid-40's - he brought legendary Hollywood animators Art Babbitt and Ken Harris to his London studio to train his staff - and himself. Below is a picture of Dad taken when I was a kid.

So is a 3 year BA at University enough time to get really good? Well, let's do the sums. Add up the hours of formal teaching you get at university (around 16 hours a week) and multiply that over the course of 3 years, not forgetting to exclude the holidays, and you end up with around 1,500 hours. In other words, it's probably not enough.

So what is the answer? The solution, of course, is to practice in your own time. Consider the tutition you get at University to be just the beginning of the time you will need to invest to get really good at what you do. It's a springboard, and an opportunity to get great feedback, but time spent in the classroom is not the whole story.

The good news is this: if you are prepared to invest the time and effort to practice your craft, you will in all likelihood get really, really good at it.

And, if you don't believe me, buy Malcom's book and read it for yourself.



  1. There is this story about a guy who asked an artist to draw him a rooster. An artist said to the man to be back in a year and he will give him a fantastic rooster drawing. After a year a guy comes back and says he came for the drawing he ordered a year ago. Artist took a piece of paper and drew very quickly amazing rooster piece and handled it over to a customer. The guy was confused and asked an artist why he couldn't give this drawing a year ago if it took only couple of minutes to accomplish. Artist smiled and took him to the other room. There a man saw whole room was covered in drawings of roosters. Some roosters were crap, some were better and some were amazing just as the one he got. Artist told man it took him a year to perfect drawing a rooster.
    I like to tell it to show how much work is behind an easy-looking success.

  2. Quite right. During the 1877 libel trial against Ruskin, the painter Whistler was asked by Counsel (Holker) how he could justify his fee as a painter. The exchange went like this:

    Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
    Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."