The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears

Is mastering a subject mainly about innate gifts or about hard work? If it is about hard work, how long does it take? The first of these questions has of course been attracting people’s attention for a long time, but it’s not the people who ask this question who are in trouble, but those who don’t even think it is question in the first place.

The traditional (or fraud-proof) character for 10,000.

Too many seem to assume that learning anything (especially languages) is about being talented and having a gift for learning (again, very common for language learning). Although it’s arguably true that some people seem to learn languages more easily than others, this is far from the whole truth.

In this article, I’m going to argue that learning Chinese is mainly about blood, sweat and tears, not talent. Of course, if you’re wise, you’ll find ways to bleed, sweat and cry that you actually enjoy or at least think is worthwhile, but hard work is still what will propel you forward, not some inner ability you were (or weren’t) born with. Similarly, saying that you can’t learn because you don’t have the gift is equally invalid. If other people can work hard to master Chinese, so can you.

The talent myth

I think what people usually call “talent” starts from early childhood, meaning that it’s something grown or learnt rather than something being genuinely innate  In school, pupils are very quickly sorted into categories: those who are smart and those who aren’t. If you’re the smart type, you’ll get lots of encouragement from your environment, but if you’re unfortunate enough to be placed in the other category, then you’ll have a more difficult time.

The problem is that people base their ability to learn something on what they did in school, perhaps ten or twenty years ago. I’ve read about and heard innumerable people state that they can’t learn a language and then follow it up with “I took French evening classes and it was really hard” or “I studied German for six years in school and I still can’t speak the language”.

This is nonsense. These people aren’t assessing their own ability to learn, they’re simply saying that under that kind of circumstances, they weren’t able to learn the languages to a satisfactory level. Then they go on and read about the polyglots who travel the world to learn many languages, usually very quickly. Even though I have argued that learning Chinese in just a few months is, depending on definitions, impossible, that’s not saying you can’t learn an awful lot. Let’s take French as an example, simply because I have studied French for more than six years in school and still can’t speak very well (in other words, I was once one of the people I criticise above).

Practice is counted in hours, not in years

If someone claims to have learnt French in just a few months, most people would either say that it’s a lie or that the person is extremely talented. Neither is necessarily true (although both might be, of course). The mistake people make is that they count practice in years and not in hours. Let me illustrate with a short dialogue:

A: Have you studied any foreign language?
B: Yes, I’ve studied French.
A: For how long?
B: Six years.
A: Wow! You must be very good then.
B: No, I can hardly communicate with natives.

This dialogue is weird only if you think that six years means six years of serious studying, because then you really should be very good at French. But if B in this dialogue only took one hour of evening classes every second week for six years and did no homework, I don’t think he’d be able to communicate very well, even after six years.

Don’t compare with your high-school French class

Let’s look at the numbers of a more realistic example. Let’s say that I study French in school for six years. That means roughly 40 weeks/year because of holidays and so on. Most people don’t have class everyday, let’s say we have three hours of French each week and do two hours of homework, then this adds up to 200 hours in one year or 1200 in six years.

Compare this with the serious language learner, immersed in the language and doing nothing but studying. Realistically, it’s very hard to maintain a lifestyle where you do nothing but learning languages, but for a short period of time, I know it’s possible to study non-stop, but let’s say 14 hours/day, which gives plenty of time to sleep, eat and so on. If you do that for three months, you’ll end up with 1260 hours.

As we can see, the avid language learner totals more hours in three months than an average high-school student does in six years.

The 10,000 hour rule

What can we learn from this? Mainly, we learn that what seems to be impossible feats of talent is in reality the result of hard work (counted in hours), although concentrated in a short duration of time (counted in years). We also learn that by erroneously comparing someone else’s learning process to our own experience, we draw incorrect conclusions about how others achieve success. We tend to dismiss expertise simply as the result of innate ability, which is wrong. Some subjects are more prone to this than others. For instance, would you attribute a surgeons skill to innate ability? What about a musician? Do you realise how many hours an Olympic gymnast has practised when you watch him or her on TV?

Let’s see what Malcolm Gladwell (the guy who is usually attributed with popularising the 10,000 hour rule) has to say about this:

Basically, the 10,000 hour rule states that if you want to get good at something, you need to spend approximately 10,000 hours practising. Gladwell claims that this figure is relevant for many fields, but I don’t really care about the exact number. The point is that it’s there and that it’s there without referring to talent. Anyone can spend 10,000 hours if they really want to.

Experience and deliberate practice

Note that “practice” in this case means deliberate practice, i.e. striving actively to become better by challenging yourself. Most people who practice simply do so in a passive manner, which doesn’t really count (or if it counts, it counts less than true deliberate practice). Anders Ericsson, a pioneer researcher in the field of deliberate practice,makes a clear difference between deliberate practice (top musicians) and ordinary experience (everyday activities). Since this is a major topic of its own, I’ll save this discussion for an upcoming article.


What I want to say in this post is very simple: Learning Chinese takes a long time (measured in hours, not in years) and hard work. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure the road is enjoyable, but you’ll still have to walk it. Each persons road might be different, but it’s simply not the case that someone else’s road is half as long as yours, provided you have roughly the same background.

So, don’t use talent either as an excuse not to learn, either because you think you’re talented and therefore don’t need to study, or, perhaps more commonly, because you think you aren’t talented and therefore can’t learn. Everyone can invest 10,000 hours if they really want to and if they think it’s worthwhile. As I’ve stated earlier, the number itself isn’t the point, what’s important is that it’s there and that you have no real excuse of not getting there, provided you are really interested.

Reaching your goal might take more or less than 10,000 hours, but whatever the true number is, it’s still an indication that you can and need to study, regardless of talent.

Achieving the impossible by being inspired

I have had the opportunity to pursue many of my dreams and ambitions in life (learning Chinese is one of them) together with other people, sometimes with long-time friends, sometimes with new acquaintances. With time, I’ve gradually become aware that there seem to be two things that separate myself from many of the people I’ve met. I think that I have a very healthy attitude towards failure, progress and competition that helps me achieve what I want, usually with support from people around me.

I didn’t know Chinese when I was born, neither did I learn it by magic

It’s absolutely astonishing that people really seem to believe that skill X is something innate, that the performer could do it when he or she was born, or at least that the skill X was somehow magically acquired at some point in the past. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “How can you do that? How is that possible?” This can be said about anything, but apart from being able to speak Chinese, I usually hear it about unicycling, diving or Rubik’s cube.

The question “How can you do that?” might look innocent, but I think it hides a ton of prejudice and negative thoughts that is stopping you from achieving whatever it is you want to achieve. To be blunt, the question is inane and the answer is obvious:

I’ve practised a lot.

It’s as if the person asking this question thinks that I could speak Chinese fluently since the age of five or that I could perform some difficult dive when I was ten. This is wrong. I started learning both Chinese and diving when I was around 23.

Yeah, yeah, but perhaps people are just asking this because they don’t know what to say? It’s more of a rhetorical question than a real question, you might say. I think that’s wrong. Saying “How can you do that?” implies that the connection between practice and end-result isn’t obvious, because then you would say something else. If I see someone who can do something I can’t and do it extremely well, my first reaction is curiosity. I might want to know how he or she practised or what kind of skills it involves.

What about talent?

I think the notion of talent is yet another barrier behind which people protect themselves form success. If it requires a ton of talent to be able to learn Chinese fluently, it means that you have an excuse if you don’t learn the language. You can just say that so and so is more talented, and that’s it. You’re not talented enough. This argument fails to take into account the fact that language learning (and many other tasks) requires a vast amount of time to accomplish. Talent might be a factor, but hard work is what really counts. Saying that something requires talent and that therefore you can’t do it is just a bad excuse. You can continue saying that if you wish, but you would benefit a lot more if you recognised the fact that most endeavours in life are about 95% hard work and 5% talent.

Practise makes perfect

Are you surprised when you go to the hospital and the doctor is accurately able to say what’s wrong with you? Do you marvel at the fact that a bridge doesn’t fall down when you drive over it? Do you feel awe when someone repairs the plumbing in your home?

Probably not. You know that the education needed to make these things work take years to finish. No-one is born a doctor, an engineer or a plumber. If you really wanted to and had the time and the opportunity, I think most people could learn those professions as well. The same is true for learning Chinese. The point is that no-one knows anything when they’re born. We learn things and we keep on learning things after we’ve grown up.

It’s easy to focus just on the pinnacle instead of the foundation on which it is based

I can’t remember who said this, but someone thought that the Olympic Games shouldn’t be broadcast on TV because we never get to see the tens of thousands of hours of training that lie behind each gold medal. We watch these superstars on TV and marvel at their skill, without appreciating or even beginning to understand what it took to achieve such a pinnacle of proficiency.

Although a bit contrived, I think there is some truth in this. By watching only the perfected end-result, we create an insurmountable wall between ourselves and them. They become untouchable. They are amazing. They can do the impossible. In fact, there is no wall, just a gradual steeper slope. Everyone can’t be a sprint champion, but most people can learn to run really, really fast if that’s what they want to do.

Achieving the impossible

This leads me to the second part of this article, namely how to regard people who are better than you are, how to look up that slope without being daunted by the distance you have to climb to get to a certain level. In other words, how to survive learning Chinese in an environment which is actually way above your level. This is in fact something I recommend, but that will be the focus of a separate article (The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese).

Some people look up the slope with envy, some with awe. I would argue that both of these are destructive attitudes. Curiosity and an open mind is what you need.

Learn from your superiors, teach the rest

I’m not a big fan of Confucius in general, but one sentence in the Analects is quite powerful: 三人行必有我師焉. It means that in a group of three people, there is bound to be someone who can be your teacher. In other words, Confucius says that everyone has their own set of skills and experiences that should be valued and that others should strive to learn. No-one is the grandmaster of all situations, of all trades and all walks of life. I can teach you how to learn Chinese, what can you teach me? Or, if we keep ourselves to Chinese for a moment, perhaps my pronunciation is better than yours, but you probably know other areas better than I do.

Be brave, open your mind and learn more

This illustrates a major point in how I regard other people. If I meet someone who can do something I can’t, but that I want to be able to do, I try to keep this person as close as possible, realising that this is a potential teacher. When I lived in Taiwan, I usually studied with people whose Chinese was a lot better than my own. Some people wouldn’t dare to do that because they would feel bad, inferior and so on. Every time they talked to other, superior classmates, it would highlight shortcomings and failures.

Sure it would. You would never be the best in your class, but if you turn it around and look at it from the other direction, you suddenly have not one teacher in your class, but a whole group! Keeping these people as closely as possible, you learn how they learn, you study how they study. And you improve, probably much faster than they do, because they only have one teacher. Perhaps you might not feel that you’re improving that much, because you will still be far behind, but measured against some more objective benchmarks you will know that the distance is rapidly decreasing.

Regard superiors as teachers, not rivals or opponents

I really think that Confucius hit the nail on its head with the above quote. As soon as you see someone who is superior to you, you shouldn’t see a competitor, an enemy or a rival, you should see a teacher. Perhaps he or she won’t be your formal teacher, but in your mind, think of your superiors as your teachers and everything will be a lot easier. Use them as sources of inspiration and knowledge.

Of course, it works the other way around, too. If in a group of three someone can be your teacher, it also means that in the same group, you can be the teacher of others. Teaching is an exceptionally powerful way of learning, but I feel that it’s slightly outside the scope of this article to delve deeper into that question. Just realise that in any situation, you can learn and you can teach. You can be inspired, but don’t forget that you can inspire others, too.

To inspire and to be inspired

I’ve said what I wanted to say already, but I’m going to sum things up before ending this article. Teaching and inspiring are two closely related things. If you can see all superiors as sources of inspiration and knowledge, you will advance faster than if you view them as rivals or opponents. Similarly, realise that you have your own strong sides that inspire other people. Don’t hesitate to teach others if they want to be taught. Inspiration is cyclic in its nature and should flow freely in all directions.