The 10, 000 Hour Rule is the theory that it takes 10 000 hours of practice to become an expert in something – and seems to be most frequently applied to the fields of sport and music.
Below is a summary of Malcolm Caldwell’s perspective on the 10, 000 hour rule – he basically argues that it does seem to be true that you need 10, 000 hours to become a world-leader in any given field, but you also have to be extremely lucky and/ or privileged in some way to have the opportunities which give you the time to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice.
The University of Michigan opened its new Computer Center in 1971… its mainframe computers stood in the middle of a vast white room looking like something out the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Off to the side were dozens of keypunch machines – what passed in those days as computer terminals. In 1971, this was state of the art and the University of Michigan had one of the most advanced computer science programmes in the world. The most famous student who passed through this was a gawky teenager named Bill Joy who came to the Center the year it opened when he was 16. From that point on, the Computer Center was his life.
In 1975 he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Berkeley, where he rewrote UNIX in collaboration with others, which remains the main operating system on literally millions of computers around the world today, and then went on to co-found Sun Micro-systems where he rewrote JAVA.
Joy is sometimes called the Edison of the Internet, and is one of the most influential people in computing history.
The story of Bill Joy is normally told as one in which he existed in a pure meritocracy – because in a new tech field, there was no old-boy network and the field was open, all participants being judge on their talents…. It was a world where the best men won, and Joy was clearly one of those best men.
It would be easier to accept this story if one hadn’t have already have looked at the Hockey stats… whose story was also supposed to be a pure meritocracy. Only it wasn’t, it was a story of how outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage.
Is it possible that these same factors work in the world of computing as well?
For many years psychologists have been involved in a debate over whether innate talent exists. This is something that most people accept – success = innate talent + preparation, but the problem with the concept of innate talent, is that the more psychologists look at it, the bigger role that preparation seems to play.
Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990s by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson who divided violinists at Berlins’ elite Academy of Music up into three groups – those with the potential to become world class soloists, those who were judged to be merely good, and those who were unlikely to ever play professionally – they were asked a simple question – since you first picked up a violin, how many hours have you practiced?
The answer was that early on the practice regimes were the same, but when the students were around the age of eight, real differences began to emerge. By the age of twenty, the elite students had amassed a total of 10 000 hours, the good students 8000, and the future music teachers only 4000 hours.
Ericsson also found that there were no people who simply coasted without practicing, and no grinds – students who tried but got nowhere, so he simply concluded that once you look at just the ‘elite students’ what differentiates the best students from the ordinary is simply the amount of practice they have amassed.
This pattern has been found among musicians, sports stars and grand-masters at chess.
This idea that to become an expert requires a critical mass of practice hours surfaces again and again, so much so that the magic number of 10 000 hours to be an expert has emerged.
Practice is the thing that makes you good – and the interesting thing about it is that it is an enormous amount of time….And if you’re a hockey player born young, the fact that you’re deselected early on means you’re unlikely to be in an environment where you’re going to get 10 000 practice before you’re 17, and If your poor, you simply can’t fit it in the hours because you’ll probably need to work.
While it is true that Bill Joy had an enormous aptitude for maths, he was also lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to get in 10 000 hours of programming practice, which was basically just down to luck.
Firstly, he was lucky enough to be at Michigan University at a time when that was pretty much the only place in the world which had a computer center in which programming had evolved to a ‘time sharing system’ – where the computers could handle more than one task at once, so multiple people could programme at the same time, rather than the old ‘punch card system’ in which it took hours of preparation to get in a few minutes of programming.
Secondly, he was lucky enough that the university kept the computer center open all night, which allowed him to programme 8-10 hours a day.
Thirdly, the computer center charged for people to use it, but a bug in the programme allowed him (and many others) to programme for free.
So yes, Joy was talented and put in the effort, but he also needed a whole of lot fortunes of circumstance to come together so that he could amass his 10 000 hours of practice – which meant that by the time he was in his third year at Berkeley he was up to the task of rewriting UNX.
NB Joy hadn’t even gone to Michigan to study computing, but maths and engineering, he was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Is the 10 000 rule a general rule of success?
The Beatles came to America in 1964, by which time they had really ‘made it’. However, they had known each other for a long time before fame: Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957.
Interviews with The Beatles reveal that what really made them was their experience of playing in strip clubs in Hamburg where they were required to play 8 hours a night and 7 days a week. They weren’t able to just do their best numbers, they had to learn a lot of covers, and, being foreign, they had to put more energy into their routines to come across effectively.
Just as with Bill Joy, it was sheer luck that got The Beatles their Hamburg experience – a particular promotor from Germany was in London scouting for bands, and met a guy from Liverpool who knew of The Beatles, just randomly in a bar in Soho – it was this connection that did for them.
Between 1960 and 1962, they played for a total of 270 nights in Hamburg – they went out average and came back uniquely excellent – no one else sounded like them.
By 1964, The Beatles had amassed a total of 1200 live performances, a figure which most professional bands struggle to achieve in their entire careers.
Bill Gates’ story is also told as one of individual grit – Brilliant young math whiz discovers computer programming and drops out of Harvard to form a little company called Microsoft… and so on.
But let’s dig a little deeper… and there a shed loads of social factors from which Gates benefited…
- Gate’s father was a wealthy lawyer in Seattle and his mother the daughter of a well-to-do banker. They put him into the elite independent Lakeside School in grade 7.
- In 1968, the school set up a computer club, with money from the mother’s annual junks sale ($3000), unusually, they installed an ASR-33 Teletype which allowed Gates (who joined the club) to do real time programming in 1968, which was practically unheard of.
- Washington University set up a Computer Centre Corporation, and one of the founders of the firm had a son at Lakeside, and Gates was networked into being able to test out their software at weekends for free.
- This first firm went bankrupt, but another company, ISI established and need someone to write Payroll software – Gates took advantage of that opportunity
- Gates happened to live within walking distance of Washington State Univeristy
- WSU had free computer time between 3 and 6 a.m. that Gates took advantage of.
- A power station in Washington State needed people to write software, the only people with the skills in the area were the kids from Lakeside.
- Lakeside school allowed Gates (and some others) to go write software for that power station under the guise of an ‘independent project’.
All of the above opportunities gave Gates time to practice programming – by the time he dropped out of Harvard, he was way past 10 000 hours.
What truly distinguishes Bill Joy, Bill Gates and The Beatles is not their extra-ordinary talent and effort (although all three cases had both), but rather their extraordinary opportunities…. This seems to be the rule rather than the exception with software engineers and rock stars.
Another examples of this ‘extra-ordinary’ opportunity thesis is revealed if we analyse the birth dates of the richest 75 people in history.
An astonishing 14 people on the list are American born, and born within 9 years of each other – thousands of years of human history, hundreds of countries, and 20% of the richest are born in one generation in one country.
What’s going on here? In the 1860s and 70s the American economy went through one the biggest expansions in its history: it is when the railroads were built, when Wall Street emerged and when industrialization started in earnest. However, if you were born in the late 1820s, you were too old: your mind set was shaped by pre-civil war paradigms, if you were born in the late 1840s, you missed it!
We can do the same analysis with people like Bill Joy and Bill Gates.
If you talk to veterans of Silicon Valley, they’ll tell you that the most important date in the history of the personal computer revolution was January 1975 when the first DIY computer kit, the Altair 8800, was released at a sale price of $397, a minicomputer kit to rival commercial models. This was the year when personal home computing became available to the majority of people.
If you were too old in 1975, born before 1952, then you’d already have a job at IBM, and have a hard time making the transition to the ‘new world’ and the possibilities for transformation that were opening up. You’d be of an age in in 1975 where you’re established computer career meant it was just comfortable to stay put.
If you were born after 1958, then you were too young to get your foot in the door when this change took place.
Ideally you would have been born in 1954 or 1955, and just look….
- Bill Gates – October 28th, 1955
- Paul Allen, third richest man at Microsoft – Jan 21st 1953
- Steve Ballmer, the cofounder of Apple computer, March 24 1956.
- Steve Jobs – February 24, 1955.
- Bill Joy – Nov 8th