If you haven’t heard of Malcolm Gladwell, hit amazon, buy his books, read them then come back. Don’t worry, I can wait. Gladwell, best known for his ability to weave what could be normally construed as mundane or boring topics with top notch storytelling, brought forward the idea that it takes approximately 10000 hours of solid practice to become an ‘expert’ at whatever task/field you would like (1). The idea itself is not unique to Gladwell, originally formulated by K. Anders Ericsson in the 90s following the study of high level musicians (2), where expertise was more of a case of extreme skill acquisition as opposed to a natural gift (read: lots of practice, not natural ability).
Of course this idea caught on in the fitness industry like wild fire, quickly propagating from blog to blog. Human nature leads us to love concrete ideas, and while the number is large, everyone loves knowing that by simply doing what you do for 10000 hours (roughly five years if you do 40 hours a week) you’ll be an expert. So anyone who has gone through a personal training course would know this as a S.M.A.R.T. goal, everything we’ve been told to look for. It’s specific, easily measured, attainable, realistic, and will only take you five years moving through your clients on cruise control (timely). Better yet, we now have access to more books that can tell us how to beat the 10000 hour rule, achieving success faster than ever before.
Not all forms of practice are equal
The problem is that not all forms of practice are equal. Humans are easily fallable and often complacent (myself included), and most forms of practice, especially if your goal is to accumulate a magic number of hours, end up as repeating tasks that we can already do well. The catch with the 10000 hour rule is that the practice must be deliberate, an intentional effort with the goal to constantly address areas of weakness and to constantly improve. Training the same types of clients on the same program for 10000 hours will only serve to waste your time and your client’s time and money.
It’s all too easy to fall in this trap, I find myself constantly there as well. Whether it’s only performing your best lifts, failing to address weak points, sticking to certain types of equipment (I continually neglect dumbbells), reading the same authors and going to sites that only share your opinion; all of these tasks, while technically related to your interests, probably don’t qualify as deliberate practice, and likely aren’t making you better at what you do.
If you think about how this ‘rule’ was originally developed, there could be some other problems with our current application. So we’ve taken a retrospective analysis of people who were likely extremely intrinsically motivated to work in their field (originally by Ericsson in 90s, later by Gladwell), who probably weren’t motivated to work so they could be called experts, and based on this tallied up a magic number that now all people can work towards to achieve a similar status to those successful originators. While I can’t prove anything, I suspect that anyone who is focused on becoming an expert in their field by accumulating a fixed number of hours will likely fall short of their goal.
There’s no such thing as experts
To finish with some honesty, I don’t believe in experts anyway. We’re all just different people with different interests, who’ve read different books/articles, talked with different people and spent our time doing different things. It’s the people who recognize this and exploit it by developing a great, diverse, professional network who will ultimately succeed.