10,000 Hours to Mastery

In recent years, a good deal of attention has been paid to the idea that 10,000 hours of intelligent effort is required to master a complex activity, such as playing classical music—or chess.

There are many problems with this idea. Exactly what kind of effort qualifies? What kind of activity qualifies? Perhaps an even more fundamental question is, how do we define mastery?

Many chessplayers struggle to improve at chess all their lives, but after the first few years, simply don’t. One English grandmaster has even concluded that adults can’t improve at chess. Perhaps the adults he teaches haven’t improved at chess, but as Shakespeare might ask, does the fault lie in his students, or in himself? What we can agree on, is that not all effort seems to result in chess improvement. But what kind of effort is needed? We can look at players who have improved, and conclude, “Well, what they did was correct.” And by the same token, we can say that the non-improving players did the wrong kind of work. But arguing from results seems unscientific, especially if neither group was closely observed.

Even if we assume the 10,000 hours rule has validity, surely it is not equally valid for all activities. Chess has hardly any physical component, while performing classical music certainly does: over-use injuries are rampant among musicians. Then again, the degree of complexity among activities varies widely. Obviously it takes a good deal less than 10,000 hours to master tic-tac-toe, for example. Whereas unaided human flight probably cannot be mastered, no matter how many hours the diligent student invests. (If you object that unaided human flight is simply impossible, and I would tend to agree, make up your own extreme example.) Most human activities probably fall somewhere on a spectrum of complexity between tic-tac-toe and unaided flight (or your substitute activity). We may logically conclude that some of these activities can be mastered in considerably less than 10,000 hours, whereas other activities may take even more time, if indeed they can be “mastered” at all. We end up with a sliding scale, rather than an arbitrary fixed number. (For reasons that probably reflect badly on my character, I am reminded of an old joke. On a cruise ship, a man approaches a beautiful woman and asks, “Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?” The woman replies, “Of course!” Then the man says, “How about if I give you $20?” Indignantly the woman replies, “What do you think I am, a slut?” The man says, “We’ve already established what you are. Now we’re just dickering over the price.”)

Finally, what is “mastery”? The U.S. Chess Federation awards the master title to players who achieve a 2200 rating. My guess is that many players who earn this title do so after investing less than 10,000 hours, while many players who spend more than 10,000 hours on chess never become masters. (10,000 hours = about 3 hours per day x 10 years. That’s a lot of time.)

So the 10,000-hours-to-mastery concept may need some detailed explanation, some refinement, in order to become comprehensible and potentially useful. In future posts I will look at the burgeoning literature on this concept and try to find value for the chess improver.

Tim Hanke