Is 10,000 hours of practice still the magic number?

September 30, 2016

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell first popularised the '10,000-hour rule.’ Broadly speaking, this rule states that if you want to become world-class in any field, you need to spend 10,000 hours practising. This ‘rule’ has informed the design of education and aspiration to excellence, including in surgical training. But is it still valid? A recent study from the University of Princeton suggests it may be time for a rethink.  

The 10,000-hour principle originated from a 1993 study on a group of violin students at a music academy in Germany. However, Gladwell’s interpretation of this study into a 10,000 hours rule has been interpreted as ‘arbitrary’ by even some of the original authors. 10,000 hours was in fact only the average amount of time the violinists had practised by age 20, not the overall cumulated time of practice. 

What’s more, the type of practice is important, and not conveyed by a ’10,000-hour' rule. There is a fundamental difference between randomly practising something versus deliberately practising a task in a systematic and purposeful manner. Deliberate practice is the notion that you should practise in a way that pushes you beyond your comfort level by continuously challenging you, following structured courses and training developed by experts, and utilising feedback to acknowledge your weaknesses to improve upon them. The recent Princeton study evidences that deliberate practice is more effective in stable environments, such as practising chess. 

It’s the concept of deliberate practice that informs our own education programme at eoSurgical. The details of surgical practice vary from patient to patients, complicating the challenge of skill acquisition. Simulation stabilises the environment, facilitating learning and skills acquisition. The goal then of using the eoSim SurgTrac simulator is to improve your psychomotor skills so when you’re in surgery, you can focus on problem-solving instead of operative technique. Importantly, it also enables experts (the assessors) to provide subjective feedback to their trainees. Our goal with SurgTrac is for trainees to deliberately practice skills in a structured environment in an efficient and deliberate way so that you achieve the necessary skills without spending 10,000 hours practising!