In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell lays out criterion that in some ways has become the anecdotal darling of pop-academic culture. You’ve likely heard of it: the 10,000-hour rule. Mastery, Gladwell purports, is a matter of numbers. Put 10,000 hours of focused practice, and you can achieve mastery of a complex set of skills. Imagine the possibilities: with dedication, we could become the next Wolfgang Mozart, the next Marie Curie, the next Hannah Arendt. Sounds too good to be true? Well, Anders Ericsson—Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and a co-author of the study on which Gladwell bases his rule—says that there are indeed more “variables” in this equation. Among these are the caliber of teaching that accompanies those 10,000 hours of practice. In other words, the quality of that quantity matters extraordinarily.
So what does this mean for those of us who aspire to mastery in primarily self-guided contexts? After all, studying for the SAT or the MCAT isn’t usually something that involves a close, longitudinal apprentice-like relationship with a guru practitioner in the same way that a budding concert pianist may learn from another virtuoso teacher for years or even decades of their life. Sure, we can (and should, if possible) rely on tutors to help us prepare, but at the end of the day, studying is a solitary activity. And moreover, 10,000 hours of tutoring is very likely not a feasible model to follow, both in terms of expense and timelines to completion. Is the type of mastery that Gladwell talks about simply not applicable to test prep or academic enrichment? What can we do, beyond grinding through hours and hours of hitting the books, to get to a place where we can feel completely at home in our knowledge?
Surprisingly, the answer might have strictly less to do with logging hours than we may think. Of course, learning a subject inside and out requires an investment of time. But occasionally, we mistake this necessity for a guarantee of success. In a world (still) characterized by virtual learning, where we measure our days by the gusts of life that happen in between Zoom calls, we are even more prone to think of success as modular—as a block of time being productive and useful simply because—victory!—we squished it in, period. Don’t get me wrong; it feels great to flop onto the couch at the end of a long day, feeling satisfied, having put in those three grueling hours of study time. Check! But for those hours to truly mean something, we must cultivate strategic ways to remain honest with ourselves about how productive they truly were.
During one of my most memorable tutoring relationships, I thought a little harder about how to achieve more of that honesty. My student couldn’t understand why she wasn’t scoring higher on difficult physics exams, despite having put in significant amounts of time studying. She felt betrayed. “I did everything right; I logged those hours!” Ultimately, we needed to recalibrate her relationship to that time—not necessarily increase it. Time isn’t—alas—expandable like the inside of Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, so we are in a position of needing to respect its real constraints without treating hours passed as implicitly productive. We are all working, so to speak, with unforgivable hard-shell suitcases. Make sure you’re focusing on maximizing the space inside. Filling that suitcase up with a puffy down parka might feel great; see how full it looks!? In real life, we usually don’t pack a suitcase simply for the sake of filling it; we have a destination in mind, and we prepare accordingly. When it comes to getting the most mileage out of those study hours, focus on essentials—and a tutor is a great resource to help you identify them. Approach your precious study hours with the same intention and planning, and you can “rule” out needing those 10,000 hours after all.