Bounce: the 10,000-hour rule and the quest for mastery


It’s time, not talent, that creates champions, professionals and experts, Matthew Syed writes in Bounce.

Do you remember the 10,000-hour rule that revealed repetition as the secret of mastery? Sports champion turned writer Matthew Syed weaves this practice mantra through his book, Bounce. And, he says, it means anyone can master a sport, musical instrument or professional skill. It’s time, not talent, that counts.

By the time Bounce was published in 2010 the 10,000-hour rule was already well known. Much of the buzz stemmed from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, which popularised the idea of rigorous, sustained practice.

Of course, the concept of ‘practice makes perfect’ is nothing new: “dedication’s what you need,” as jazz musician and TV presenter Roy Castle crooned in the 1970s.

Talent is elusive and exclusive: you’re either born with it or you’re just a regular schmoe

Still, it’s easy to see why the message of Bounce (and Outliers) is so compelling. Talent is elusive and exclusive: you’re either born with it or you’re just a regular schmoe. There’s nothing mysterious about repetition, though. All you need is the determination to keep going.

Naturally, there’s a catch.

The Golden Gateway

The golden gateway of 10,000 hours correlates to around 10 years of practice. What does that look like? Well, play the violin for three hours every day and it will still take just over nine years to hit the 10k-mark.

Finger-numbing good, right? Actually, it reveals the truth about child prodigies and others who seem blessed by luck and good genes. The poster-boy for child genius, Mozart had put in 3,500 hours of practice even before his sixth birthday. Syed adds:

“Child prodigies amaze us because we compare them not with other performers who have practised for the same length of time, but with children of the same age who have not dedicated their lives in the same way.”

Bounce, Matthew Syed

The other catch

No wonder talent seems most apparent, or most encouraged, in children: setting aside 10,000 hours gets tougher when you have a family or a job.

But unless you want to compete on a world stage, you don’t have to go full fanatic. You still need to bank the hours, but you won’t need anything like 10k to become an expert or professional.

So if someone putting in 37.5 hours for 40 weeks of the year would hit the 10k mark in 5.5 years, why don’t more of us master our jobs and retire before we hit 30?

The 10,000-hour rule is attractive because it exudes simplicity; it suggests a contained and finite number of steps. Unfortunately, there’s more to it than just logging hours.

Syed reveals the other parts of the puzzle include feedback (i.e., from a coach or teacher) and meaningful practice. The latter encompasses deep concentration and a willingness to push a little further each time.

It also overlaps a particular state of mind: resilience to failure. Top skaters, he points out, fall over a lot. Talent doesn’t mean being flawless. It comes from getting back up each time, and finding opportunity in set backs.

Why mastery matters

In losing ourselves in social media, maybe what many of us are mastering is the inconsequential

The consequences of the practice mantra are mind-blowing once you start tallying where you spend your attention. In losing ourselves in social media, maybe what many of us are mastering is the inconsequential. Or, to put it another way, maybe you already have 10,000 hours in your schedule, and you just don’t know it.

It’s interesting to read Syed describe his own talent and success as tied up with a whole raft of opportunities and privileges. But by paring each back, he reveals the nuts and bolts of achievement and satisfaction.

We like to believe in meritocracy even when we know nepotism and social advantage are often really what counts. Books like Bounce are compelling not just because they purport to show us how to hack productivity and human happiness, but because they level the playing field.

The power of practice is simple, attractive and reassuring; whether you want to be a record-breaker or not, there’s something here to educate or entertain. Is mastery guaranteed? Time will tell.

Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, by Matthew Syed

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Picture credit: Nicholas Ismael Martinez