You might have read it almost all over the internet -and in several books- that you will need at least 10.000 hours of experience in learning a new skill in a new area of expertise. And unfortunately, people keep reading and repeating that hugely erroneous peace of misinformation.
So, what is the truth? Allow me to explain, please. This is an update on an article written a year ago.
The real story behind the “10.000- hrs Learning”– Myth.
In 1993, Professor Anders Ericsson, at the time a Professor at the University of Colorado, published an article called ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’. That was a natural follow up of his book (written with Jacqui Smith): ‘Toward a General Theory of Expertise’, which was originally published in 1991.
What Professor Ericsson actually did, is that he tried to analyse and ‘build’ on an earlier research study by a group of psychologists in Berlin, who had observed the violin practice habits of learners in their childhood, adolescence and adulthood years. They have found out that by the age of 20, those ‘elite’ violin players had statistically averaged more than 10.000 hours of practice each (the less able performers had only done an average of about 4.000 -5.000 hours of practice).
Ericsson tried to test and extend that idea of those 10.000 hours to all sorts of experts in various fields. So, he interviewed and studied top- athletes, technical professionals and other various top- performers in several fields. He concluded that “many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent, are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years”. Note: this indirectly implies and/or assumes that you have a minimum of 1.000 hrs annually to ‘perfect’ that given expertise! And, FYI: the universally accepted billable hours of an outsourced consultant is 1600 hours annually.
Fair enough, for a world-class top performing subject- matter expert. So far – so good.
How was the “10.000- hrs Learning”– Myth created?
Anders Ericsson talked in the early 90s about his research- results: that you need at least 10.000 hours to become a World-Class Expert in anything (but possibly a bit less if you have a ‘natural talent’ in that field).
Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell -a Journalist– wrote in 2008 a hugely popular book: ‘Outliers‘ (if I recall correctly, it was for several weeks -if not months- on NY Times’ Bestsellers List). In his book, Gladwell, he took out of context and introduced “the 10,000-hour rule” to his reading mass audience. In the book, the “10.000 hrs” have been introduced as the time needed to become a world expert/ top performer, So, the “10.000 hrs” was misrepresented or misinterpreted as the time needed to learn a new skill.
Sorry, but that is completely wrong – just a result of a journalist not understanding what he was reading and talking about, but he managed to turn that myth/ that ‘magic number’ into ‘popular science’. A lesson / another example that not every book on the Top 10 List of New York Times, does contain correct information.
Please practice critical thinking and always question the credibility of your sources of information (including me please).
So, what is the truth? How much time do I need to learn something new?
Ericsson been completely unhappy about how his findings were presented, wrote in 2012 an article (a scientific paper): ‘The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists’. No more comment on that – I hope that it’s clear to all.
Studies point out that you need to spend between 20-50 hours (depending on complexity) to learn a new skill so you can have a clear understanding when you communicate with people in that field, develop a sort of ‘gut-feeling’ and obviously be familiar with all the relevant terminology. But you will need to spend the majority of these 20-50 hours also practicing what you read – it can’t be just reading a book; only theory without practice please. Reading music notes, it will not make you play the guitar or the piano.
If you are starting your own business, these 20-50 hrs should be a guideline for how much time –for example- you need to invest in building your marketing knowledge, so you can write the marketing section on your business plan, etc.
Another example: learning to write Macros in Excel. Sure, you can read all about it, and you need to practice it with a real data-filled Excel- spreadsheet. And in all reality, those 20-50 hours might be enough for what you want to do; it is very unlikely that you will need (unless your specialization requires it) 100- 200 hours to invest on learning Excel Macros for simple Macros.
Please beware. There are new books (and relevant publicity on the internet) that you only need 20 hours to learn something; I would love to see the scientific data behind it, while I am still on this planet.
How does ‘all this’ apply to MOOCs and Online Learning?
I am always a bit perplexed when I see online courses, especially degree- programs made out of modules of 5-20 hrs long. Which is fine if they are a ‘teaser’ to a longer online program or they identify themselves as simple ultra-introductory brief introductions to a subject.
While there are plenty of properly accredited online (some accreditations are made up or even fake) University degrees, there are plenty of MOOCs* who are just junk- unfortunately Udemy is full of them.
Even if a ‘bad’ course is free, it is still a waste of time; ok, data too especially in our Ghanaian reality.
To my experience a good MOOC does usually require 20-30 hrs (some of them -especially at edX are more complex) of learning. So please use the 20-40 learning hrs as a guideline when choosing -even a free- online course!
*(MOOCs=Massive Open Online Courses; plenty of them are both high quality and free. Please Google Coursera or EdX or NovoEd or FutureLearn or OpenStudy or the African Management Institute, etc…)(these are not recommendations nor endorsements nor do I make any money out of it)
There is a lot of information on how to effectively learn something new- just Google it; but there is an observation that seems to be valid: that the moment that you are able to correct yourself while practicing your new skill (e.g. correct your own mistakes in the Excel Macro example above), you are very close to ‘command’ that skill (that is not the same as been an expert).
So, please stay with the 20-50 hours rule and why don’t you ‘MOOC yourself up‘ meanwhile?
And like everything, if you going to acquire a new skill, you should plan how you will go about it – treat your learning process as a mini-project.
Thank you and good luck,
About the Author: Spiros Tsaltas, a former University Professor, is the Principal at a unique Customer Loyalty Start-up: HireLoyalty (www.HireLoyalty.com) – based in Accra, which is coming out of stealth mode in the next few weeks offering both Consulting and Training in anything relating to Customer Loyalty.
As a NED (Non-Executive Director), Spiros is also associated with HIREghana ( www.HIREgh.com ) and he can be hired via them (+233 50 228 5155).
Spiros welcomes all your comments/ remarks/ feedback /suggestions at Press [at] HireLoyalty.com. HireLoyalty can be reached at +233 20 741 3060 or +233 26 835 2026
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