What Separates Elite Achievers From Average Performers?
A surprising finding from the research behind the so-called ‘10,000 hour rule’
In the 1990s, a trio of psychologists from the Universität der Künst in Berlin embarked on a quest to answer the question: What separates elite achievers from average performers? Their resulting research became the basis of the so-called “10,000 hour rule,” popularized by psychology writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve true mastery of a skill. (Gladwell has pushed back on the interpretation over the years, but the popular conception of the rule has taken on a life of its own.)
For their study, the researchers gathered a set of star violin players, ones who professors believed would become world-class performers. Let’s call this group the stars. They also put together another group: students who were serious about the violin, but as their professors noted, not in the same league as the stars. We’ll call this group the mediocres.
All of the students were asked to log, in detail, how they spent their time each day. Through the diaries, the researchers observed that the stars put in an average of about 50 hours of practice per week. In today’s world, where we valorize nonstop hustle, a number this high makes sense: To get better at anything, we believe, we simply need to put in more time.
But what may come as a surprise is that the mediocres also put in 50 hours of practice per week. Yes, the group of average performers spent around the same amount of time as the elite players working on their scales, fine-tuning their tempo, and doing whatever else is necessary to improve their violin performance.
So what separated the two groups, if not hours devoted to their art? There were two big differences.
First is that the stars spent almost three times more time on deliberate practice than the average group. Deliberate practice is the uncomfortable, purposeful type of practice where you stretch your abilities. You’re not just running through what you already know; you’re challenging yourself to expand what you can do.