The “10,000-hour rule” – that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field – has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half-true.
Ten thousand hours of practice may or may not bring you to the top of your game, and the reason is this: if you are a so-so golfer and you have a so-so golf stroke and you practice that golf stroke in a so-so way, in 10,000 hours you are still going to have the same poor golf stroke.
A psychologist named Dr. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University came up with the 10,000-hour rule. He first discovered it with violinists. He found that the first violin had practiced 10,000 hours, second violin 7,500 hours, and so on.
However, he also said that it’s not enough just to practice that sheer number of hours; you have to do it in a smart way. The smart way is to have an expert eye, a coach, look at how you perform and give you feedback on what you should practice next to improve. This is what a really fantastic executive coach would do, for example.
People who are only amateur, Ericsson found, will practice about 50 hours and, however good they are at the point, they stabilize. They don’t have that extra feedback that gives you the continuous improvement you need.
One of the things executive coaches often tell me is that a large percentage of leaders fail to give feedback to their team. That’s a missed leadership opportunity. A good coach will offer a leader some extra feedback on how to give feedback to their team.
Learning how to improve any skill also requires top-down focus. Neuroplasticity, the strengthening of old brain circuits and building of new ones for a skill we are practicing, requires our paying attention. When practice occurs while we are focusing elsewhere, the brain does not rewire the relevant circuitry for that particular routine.
Daydreaming defeats practice; those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks. Paying full attention seems to boost the mind’s processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing.
At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don’t need to think about it – you can do the routine well enough on automatic.
Executive coaches: Share your tips for helping leaders reach the top of their game in the comments, or tweet them @DanielGolemanEI using #focus.
For more on executive coaching and the importance of focus, listen to my interview with Dr. Relly Nadler and Dr. Cathy Greenberg on Leadership Development News.
His more recent books are The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence – Selected Writings (More Than Sound). Leadership: A Master Class is Goleman’s comprehensive video series that examines the best practices of top-performing executives.