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10,000 Hours

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: Tue Mar 07 2017 13:25:21 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)

If you don’t choose to do it in leadership time up front, you will do it in crisis management time down the road.” -Stephen Covey

What would you do with 10,000 extra hours? That is 1250 eight-hour days (the equivalent of 250 work weeks, just under 5 years), or 416 twenty-four hour days (the equivalent of just over fourteen months). As you think about precious time, shouldn’t it be spent on something that you are truly passionate about and want to do really well? It might be related to your work, like improving your leadership, or something recreational, like lowering your golf handicap, or possibly some combination thereof. After all, one person’s recreation is often another person’s chore.

We all know people who spend every spare moment of their time golfing, traveling, or gardening. Others might pursue fitness, or poker, or the cello. I would be more likely to spend it reading, researching, and writing. The opportunities are endless.

Starting today, what if you dedicated 20 hours a week for ten years to do something different, something you really enjoy, which would not only enrich your life, but possibly the lives of others? Right now, that time may filled by something you do not enjoy. You may be spending it at a job you where you are counting down the days to retirement. Sometimes we forget that we have a choice, as busy as we all are earning a living and surviving financially from day to day.

Consider your immediate reaction to the 10,000 extra hours question. Perhaps you are thinking that it is difficult enough to find one extra hour, let alone an additional 9,999? You will get no argument from me. Yet, we all have the same number of hours in a day. We may not have the same number of years, but we do have the choice each day as to how to spend our time.

Why is it that some people have found the time to write books, play the piano, run marathons, and basically leap tall buildings in a single bound? Are they super-human? Do they know secrets that the rest of us do not? Perhaps they have simply figured out that achieving mastery in any endeavor takes discipline, dedication, and hard work rather than amazing natural talent.

What difference does 10,000 hours make? According to Malcolm Gladwell‘s book Outliers: the Story of Success, the “10,000 hour rule” is “the magic number of greatness.” Gladwell’s theory is that it takes about 10,000 hours of “deliberate, focused practice” to achieve mastery. He contends that it is the amount of time spent in pursuing skills or knowledge, rather than pure talent or intelligence that leads to uncommon success in one’s chosen endeavor.

The examples that he cites in Outliers are certainly impressive. According to his research, the Beatles catapulted to success not only due to prodigious talent, but also because of the number of hours they spent perfecting their sound. In the early 1960’s, they played together for eight hours a night, every night of the week, and continued to get better and better. By the time they were becoming a household name, they had performed more than 1200 concerts.

Another example is the rise of Bill Gates and Microsoft. As we all ponder how to become a billionaire the easy way, the research shows that both Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen spent thousands of hours programming from their early teen years on. They were resourceful, no question, and had access to computer terminals that others did not have. Their passion for programming led them to dedicate every extra moment to learning and practice. By the mid 1970’s, they had mastered their chosen craft. Their significant abilities, combined with a shared vision, led to the founding of Microsoft.

Think of the hours of practice and discipline. Gladwell is right when he asserts that people who dedicate that kind of time to mastering their chosen pursuit may or may not have natural talent, but they certainly have a passion. People who achieve elite status are generally not taking shortcuts. They so love what they do that it is practice time, or work, that drives them. It is all they want to do and where they want to be.

As a young athlete, I recall spending hours in the gym and driveway practicing my jump shot and foul shots. I am not sure I ever made it to 10,000 hours, but there were plenty of days spent determined to improve. The better I got, the better I wanted to be.

Foul shots were my challenge until I got to college. My first year college coach spent a lot of time with me, helping to refine my technique. He watched for a few practices, offered his opinion on a more consistent shot routine, and I practiced without fail. By the time I graduated, I could consistently hit 9 out of ten foul shots. It took hours and hours of practice, but that muscle memory remains today. Shooting baskets was something that I loved to do.

The concept of high achievement in the workplace is no different. A few years ago, as my organization underwent a cultural change initiative, I learned a great deal about how to be a better leader and how leadership drives an organization’s success (or lack thereof). I do not believe I have hit 10,000 hours yet studying and practicing leadership and organizational culture, but it has become a passion of mine and something that I pursue tirelessly. Not only has it made a difference in my career, but now I can share my learning with others and perhaps make a difference in theirs. I will gladly spend 10,000 hours and then some.

While Gladwell maintains that the 10,000 rule does not necessarily apply in sports, they are a few examples that belie his claim.

Maybe you have heard of Tom Brady, five-time Super Bowl champion, four-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, quarterback of the New England Patriots. Brady had to battle for playing time as a college football player at Michigan, and then was not drafted until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. He was the 199th overall draft pick and the sixth quarterback chosen. If you have seen the video of his ‘herd-of-turtles’ 40 yard dash at the NFL combine, you might wonder how he went that high.

Of course, the Patriots knew something else about him. He was rated very highly for mental toughness and leadership. Given the opportunity, Tom Brady put in his 10,000 hours of preparation and practice. The stories of his practice routines and intensity are legendary. Brady is considered one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. My guess is that he had his 10,000 hours in after his first three of four NFL seasons. Football is not only his livelihood, but it is clearly a passion and he has dedicated his life to being an elite quarterback. It is certainly why he continues to perform at such a high level at the relatively ancient (by NFL standards) age of 39.

I also think of the 10,000-hour rule in conjunction with professional skill and knowledge. A person who has worked in their current position for ten years has a much higher level of mastery that someone just starting out. The basic learning has been absorbed and repeated, the routines have been practiced, and most situations have been experienced so there is a level of competence, if not mastery. These are the experienced professionals that we most want performing our surgeries, taking care of our investments, or even cutting our hair.

From a leadership and organizational culture standpoint, I believe that 10,000 hours is a bare minimum to begin to feel like the core leadership and cultural competencies are ingrained. Of course, with leadership, and organizational culture, the learning is ongoing. There are many lessons to learn, and human behavior is not static. Our thoughts and beliefs can evolve over time. The more determined and individual or an organization is to improve, the better they can become. Like music or programming, or football, it takes practice, practice, practice. And a little passion doesn’t hurt.

Deb Sparrow

March, 2017


Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at

An excellent article Deb! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Dennis L. Keschl
Thank you, Dennis!