In his 2008 bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell delivered to the mainstream the theory that gaining mastery of any craft requires 10,000 hours of dedicated practice — as he calls it, “the magic number of greatness.”
The trade you’re in doesn’t matter much, he argued, because what all skill-based pursuits have in common is that repetition — at the scale of years of your life — is the only path to proficiency. Similarly, the actual number of hours may vary, but that’s not the point. In this controversial model, “10,000 hours” plays the same symbolic role as “40 years in the desert” did for the Israelites: a long, arduous journey through a wilderness beset with strife and dream-killing doubt.
But while Gladwell is right that even the most naturally gifted cannot succeed without putting in the time, his maxim lacks a crucial caveat: 10,000 hours of sincere, focused training in a craft is just the price of admission. You can put in the time and still suck.
Okay, perhaps that’s an oversimplification. If you practice at something 40 hours a week for five years (40 hrs/week * 50 weeks/year * five years = 10,000 hours), you will definitely improve and might even become a master. But mastery of a thing doesn’t guarantee “success” in the form of extrinsic rewards — that is, money, fame, respect, or even a job. You could be the best oboe player in North America but still not be able to pay your bills or have your brilliance acknowledged by the world. And when you are really, really good at something, but no one notices, it feels like sucking.
The mistake lies in the logic of our dreams. When most people envision the perfect way to make a living, they think of activities that 1) are fun; 2) provide accolades; and 3) don’t require long division. This general passion for the glittery, self-aggrandizing, and nonquantitative results in a supply of pretty good comedians, okay singer-songwriters, and decent essay writers (hi there!) that significantly exceeds the demand for our services — which means that almost none of us will be able to earn a living solely by “doing our thing.”
Morgan Housel, the financial writer and author of The Psychology of Money, captured this stark reality in a recent blog post: “Being good at something doesn’t promise rewards. It doesn’t even promise a compliment. What’s rewarded in the world is scarcity, so what matters is what you can do that other people are bad at.”
Housel’s declaration here is the sobering, no-bullshit side of the 10,000 hours coin: The marketplace doesn’t care how much you practice. It cares very little about how good you’ve gotten. And it definitely doesn’t care how much you care. Either someone else can’t live without what you have to offer, or your dream is a hobby.
This, of course, isn’t the way things should be. Anyone who loves to bake and puts in the time should be able to earn lots of money selling muffins. Novelists who can weave language into a tapestry of emotions should get more respect than TikTok celebrities who attract millions by lighting their farts on camera. My Donna Summer tribute band should be on the next cover of Rolling Stone.
But that’s not how the world works. So before you quit your job to master the oboe, develop the next smash video game, or disrupt the grilled cheese industry with your networked panini app, check your motivations and consider a line from “Wishing Well,” a song by alternative rocker Bob Mould: “There’s a price to pay for a wish to come true — trade a small piece of your life.”
When you commit to spending 10,000 hours getting good at something, you are trading a big piece of your life, and the only thing you are guaranteed is learning the answer to the question, “What would happen if I gave it my all?” That’s it. Trying is your trophy and everything else — if there is anything else — is gravy.
The good news is that no matter what else happens, persistence will generate meaningful intrinsic rewards. If you keep going down the 10,000 hours path, you will experience the joy of engaging in your art, the pride that comes from hard-won improvement, and the camaraderie you feel when you find fellow travelers who share your passion.
So let go of external outcomes and do your thing for the love of the craft. Love is not just the only sensible reason to chase a dream. It’s the fuel that will keep you practicing while the world ignores you.
Paul Ollinger is the host of the Crazy Money podcast. This week’s episode features LL COOL J talking about the connection between music, character, and business.