Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called “Outliers: The story of Success“, and in it he suggests that people require roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in anything.

I wonder if that applies to martial arts as well?

Check out Gladwell’s short, 4 minute explanation on his theory:

Basically Gladwell suggests that in society there are certain outliers, or those people/places/things that exist on the fringes of the norm. One notable outlier concept is that of the ‘true expert’, or a person that has achieved supernormal success in a particular field. To become an outlier Gladwell’s study shows that you need 10,000 hours of practice.

The Math

10,000 hours sounds like a lot, and it is. Let’s put it into perspective with an example.

If you train on average 8 hours a week for 52 weeks, you’ll achieve 416 hours a year.

If you keep up that pace consistently you’ll reach the 10,000 hour mark after about 25 years.

That’s a lot of years. Gladwell calculates that most dedicated musicians and artists practice their craft for about 3 hours a day. At that pace it would take about 10 years to hit the mark of mastery.

To calculate your own pace, figure out how many hours a week you train. Think ‘on average’ to balance out your heavy weeks with the weeks you go on vacation, etc (and remember you’re only lying to yourself ; ). Multiply that number by 52. Now divide 10,000 by your number and you’ll get your rough yearly estimate.

Implications for Martial Artists

For the sake of study, let’s accept the 10,000 hour rule and analyze how it effects our training. We all have to weigh our growth and expectations in contrast to our week-to-week training. 2-3 nights a week at 2 hours at a pop is going to lead us toward the 25 year long haul as opposed to the (seemingly) short 10 year stint.

But, I also think we should feel encouraged. There are very few activities that inspire as much dedication and long-term commitment as martial arts. If you play in a slow pitch softball league no one really cares about how often you practice. If you want to pwn noobs in World of Warcraft you are on your own (with perhaps a little harassment from your guild). In martial arts you have an entire support network to encourage and help you.

Another more internal factor is illustrated by Gladwell during one of his speeches. He states that in a recent study scientists tried to figure out why Asian students generally do better in mathematics then western students. They checked genetics and biology but nothing significant could be found. What was truly telling was the result of one particular experiment.

In the experiment, students from both backgrounds were given very difficult mathematic equations, very much beyond what they were accustomed to. The western students gave up and moved on after 1-2 minutes. The Asian students had to be stopped after the 15 minute mark and told to move on.

Patience, persistence, perseverance – these are the qualities the Asian students had instilled in them, and are also the most important factors in determining a person’s success in the martial arts.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here – traditional martial art training builds the human qualities that are  paramount to success.

Wait A Minute! I See Holes In Your Plot!

Am I suggesting that if a person trapses into the dojo for 10,000 hours they are guaranteed success in both martial arts and life??

No. In fact, I think that would be far far from the truth.

Consider this – people generally work 8 hours a day at their job 5 days a week. That would make them masters within 5 years.How many people do you know that are masters at their job? How many people do you know that are even competent at their job after 5 years? Conversely, how many total idiots do you know who don’t belong anywhere near their job?

There’s a lot more to it than hours.

Smart Practice is as Paramount as Lots of Practice

If a musician plays “Smoke on the Water” all day every day, he’s never going to become Jimmy Page. If a martial artist spars everyday, he’ll never become Funakoshi Gichin. The reason why is because there is such a thing as smart practice.

What we become is a direct result of what we aspire to be. The 10,000 hours in question isn’t just about rote repetition. It also encompasses the research we do and the constant effort to improve our learning.

Let me put it another way. In real life or via youtube – have you ever watched a martial artist who has claimed 40+ years of experience, but turns out to be terribly unimpressive and unnatural? The reason why is because most of that person’s 40 years has probably been spent in TALKING about how great he/she is rather than practicing. They also very likely trained themselves into a box during their first 5 years and just sold that same package over and over again without any substantial branching out, diving inward, and improving.

This concept of smart training also differentiates what I consider expertise over mastery. I’ve met many expert martial artists, but very few masters. I personally think the 10,000 hours can deliver expertise, but it takes something more to achieve mastery.

One Bottom Line – Effort over Genius

Some martial artists are naturals who can make things look frustratingly easy. However, according to Gladwell, more often than not outliers combine modest innate talent with luck and extreme amounts of work.

If you aren’t Bruce Lee by nature, don’t panic. You can be an expert too if you really want it.