How Many Hours to Become an Expert? It Depends

In All, Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

I got an interesting e-mail the other day from a website visitor named Martin, who made a number of interesting points, but this one in particular I thought was worth sharing.

Martin wrote: “It appears to me that the number of hours of deliberate practice required to obtain world-class expertise fundamentally depends on the rewards (economic, social, etc.) associated with gaining expertise. It is probably very difficult in basketball or baseball since the rewards are astronomical (several millions of dollars in salary). But obtaining world-class performance in hula hooping or juggling probably requires much less practice since the rewards are substantially lower. Thus, the ‘0,000-hour rule’ is not fundamental to the mechanics of the task, but rather an equilibrium outcome of individuals attempting to out-practice each other. The higher the rewards are for out-practicing everyone else, the more people will attempt it, and the total number of hours required for expertise will be higher. In other words, perhaps fewer hours would be required to obtain expertise in baseball if the salaries and status were lower, but a ‘world-class’ baseball player would not be as good in that counterfactual world.”

Excellent observation! Thanks, Martin. Here is my response:

“You are correct that different areas have different levels of expertise, and certainly the financial rewards explain part of the difference. However, there are at least two other pieces, I think: First, an area has to have a reasonably objective measure of performance that is at least somewhat widely used. Without this, it is impossible to tell who is actually performing at a high level and is also impossible to get accurate feedback in order to improve performance. Think, for example, of financial advisers. A tremendous amount of money is in play, so the financial rewards are great, but there are no really good ways to tell who performs well and who doesn’t; in fact, there is good reason to believe that most of the differences in performances between financial advisers are due to random chance, so that someone who has outperformed the market four years in a row is not much more likely — if at all likely — to do better in the coming year than someone who has been no better than average.

“Second, there have to be reasonably well developed means of practicing effectively, and these generally take time to figure out. If juggling suddenly became paid as well as basketball, it would take a while to develop practice techniques (and new juggling skills) that would require 10,000 hours of practice to master. But otherwise I think you’re dead on — the areas that require the most practice to reach the top are those where the rewards are greatest. Another way to think about it — and the way that I tend to see it — is that these are areas in which people have been competing against each other consistently for a long time, with objective measures of performance making it possible to agree on who is at the top.

“This competition over time has led people to develop an increasingly large set of skills, which takes an increasingly long time to master. Musicians did not have nearly as much to learn 200 years ago in order to be considered among the best for the simple reason that music has developed a long way over the past 200 years, so it is unlikely that musicians from that era spent as much time practicing as musicians in our era do.”

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