The 10,000 Hour Rule: Will it Really Make You a Master at Your Trade?

The 10,000 Hour Rule: Will it Really Make You a Master at Your Trade?

It is theorized that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will turn one into a master of their trade. When starting out as a photographer (or any other skill), you were told practice makes perfect. But is this true for everyone ?

As a young photographer in the industry many years ago, like many, I felt my work was stellar. Lighting, posing, and general edits were enough to get the clients in the door. Little did this photographer understand how quickly that newbie passion of photography would change when a professional in the game knocked me down a few (many) notches. "Why is that child orange?" is the ringing in my head when I think of my earlier works that had me on a high for that short period of time.  

This was the holiday snap of a newbie photographers kids for cards that went to everyone in the family. While I love my children, I ache at the idea that my orange induced saturation would forever be stamped into our families memories. However, maybe it would serve the purpose of kicking the practice and learning into gear. I was shooting daily to improve but this one comment of a significant mentor would change how I practiced my trade versus how much I was practicing. 

Malcolm Gladwell’s book "Outliers" explains that 10,000 hours of practice can make you a master at your skill. Practicing your art is not only important to helping you become a better photographer but also at keeping you relevant if you are marketing your company to the public. A study performed by the Department of Psychology in Michigan attempts to debunk this theory in that it takes more than practice alone. The study shows that practice is only one third of the formula that creates a master skill level. "The psychologists reanalyzed data from six previous studies of chess competitions (1,083 subjects in total) and eight studies of musicians (628 total) for correlations between practice and success, and found huge disparities in how much chess grandmasters and elite musicians had practiced. One chess player, for example, had taken 26 years to reach a level that another reached in a mere two years." The research showed that while some do reach elite levels from practice, others fail in even with the sheer hours put in. 

So what does this mean for the average photographer putting in the hours and maybe even an additional 365 photography project to hone in on their skills? In the article "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" (K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer) it is not just about the amount of hours practice but more importantly "as a result of deliberate efforts to improve". This is something that is neglected by the starry eyed newbie photographer that feels a 365 project will improve their skills alone. It is the drive that pushes them to a different level. 

"Our empirical studies have already shown that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout". This statement is the one of the most important take home messages of the paper in that it significantly solidifies both Gladwell's idea of the 10,000 rule of quantity of practice and the authors concept of the quality of the practice. Many photographers at this month will attempt their 365 photography project in hopes to gain more hours and practice in the field. However, with work, the business and family life on the timeline, a project of this magnitude may only hinder the quality that arises from ones attempt to become a better artist. This is not to say in any means that these projects do not have significant results in experience and passion for many artists, but more to say that these projects are meant to be quality over quantity. 

When you are making your New Years goals for 2020, consider the findings from these studies. It is more important to have the improvements each time you shoot rather than churning out days and days worth of the same imagery. In the final cull of this years images I still do not feel a master of photography. I have well over 10,000 hours of work and yet still have the motivation and drive to continually improve my skills. 

What is one thing you have learned in the hours you have put in?

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9 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

Quantity of practice vs. quality of practice ..... as it applies to improvement in photography. Hmmmmm. That there is something to think upon for a while.

I believe that quantity of practice can be of value. Thousands upon thousands of hours spent photographing things, followed up with thousands of hours scrutinizing and editing the resultant photos, will certainly increase the photographer's skill level.

But skill is only half of photography ..... and probably the less important half. The more important half is comprised of artistic vision and creativity. And these are the things that must be done mindfully, when one is inspired and sharp. Here, quality of practice trumps quantity of practice by a longshot.

Jennifer Tallerico's picture

Thank you for the comment! I agree-- quantity of practice is incredibly important however it can lead to burnout in many cases. I feel putting more emphasis on improving one thing each time a shot is taken will be more beneficial than rapid shooting.

Two things, First According to Gurushots.. After several weeks of hard work, They've just made me (up voted) to the master status within their site. Second.. I guess because I've been taking pictures since the early 60's it should make me master. Though I'll always be known as an amateur.

Willy Williams's picture

There comes a time when, after many hours of practice, one suddenly is aware that all the time invested has resulted in more regular, more consistently good photos. It's like having an "AHA! Now I get it!" moment. It also leads to a better ability to pre-visualize a result to strive for.

Sigh... Gladwell did not say that 10,000 of deliberate practice can make you a master at your skill. It wasn't even his research ( https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1993-40718-001 ) Gladwell was talking about the minimums to be an Outlier and asserted that one of the necessary but not sufficient things was the time. The premise "being debunked" in 2014 and 2019 is more of the same of the media reporting it wrong in the first place then reporting on themselves getting it wrong a second time. Sure, Gladwell deserves some criticism, but it's all so twisted at this point it's worth ignoring the whole thing for a different set of reasons.

Here's an article from the original researchers unpacking the finer details of the research.( https://www.salon.com/2016/04/10/malcolm_gladwell_got_us_wrong_our_resea... ) Also, the difference between teacher/coach based practice and self-practice is examined but that doesn't make a good lede.

... the other factors in his book being, if I remember what I read of it correctly, timing; for his theory to hold true, the mentioned outliers for various reasons came at very opportune moments in time; perseverance; skills in such other topics as communications, ... etc.

The 10,000hrs rule is more of a ... guideline ..

Musing Eye's picture

Note that the authors of the paper actually have argued that Gladwell cherry picked pieces out of their work without understanding the nature of their study, so it's that the other work "significantly solidifies" or "attempts to debunk" his theory, but that their work predates and is the origin of his pop-culture take on it.
(https://www.inc.com/nick-skillicorn/the-10000-hour-rule-was-wrong-accord...)

That said, Gladwell does a great job of conveying the heart of the adage of "just keep working at it" that many of us need to hear. For me, it's a reminder that the 365-type projects may not work for me because of the temptation of "just take a picture and it meets the goal" when generally I'd prefer to spend a lot more time setting up a shoot, editing it, and then maybe never even posting something from it to any social media. But hopefully, if I keep that deliberate part in mind, I learn more from it.

chris bryant's picture

No. Believe me, it doesn’t.