There’s a famous theory that a writer named Malcolm Gladwell made popular. It says that with ten thousand hours of practice, you can become an expert in any field.
Whether that theory is true is up for debate. (We’ve written about it before.) But it’s certainly true that practice is important. Pretty much any hero you look up to—from Steve Jobs to J.K. Rowling to Cristiano Ronaldo, and everyone in between—has spent a long, long time perfecting their craft.
But ten thousand hours is a lot. How in the world do you find the time to practice that much, without giving up sleep, time with friends, fun, and other important things?
How long is ten thousand hours?
Some context is helpful. What does ten thousand hours actually look like?
Luckily, TIP’s researchers did a study on a similar topic. They compared how students in the United States spent their time to how students in India spent theirs. The study found that US students spent around thirty-four hours per week on academics.
Since US students spend about thirty-six weeks in school each year, that means they spend about 1,224 hours on academics each year. And that means it takes about eight years of school to make ten thousand hours.
But that’s covering all topics—math, science, literature, and band included. So if you’re trying to get, say, ten thousand hours of computer science under your belt, you’ve got a long road ahead of you.
Remember the tortoise
Some people—myself included—hear that and get overwhelmed. Years!? Years of practice!? But I want to be an expert now!
But that’s not a great way of looking at it. It’s probably both healthier and more productive to not rush things. Becoming an expert is a long-term thing, so rather than trying to cram in as much practice as possible right now, it’s probably better to focus on making sure you’re always doing a little more. The tortoise beats the hare in the long run, you know?
You don’t have to take my word for it, either. In their study, our researchers found found that Indian students typically did more academic work on weekends than US students. As a result, they did about forty-one hours per week on academics—seven more than US students.
Our researchers noted that “the typical Indian school year lasts four to eight weeks longer than the typical U.S. school year.” As a result, Indian students spend about 1,722 hours on academics each year, and reach ten thousand hours in a little under six years. Adding a few extra hours each week cuts two years off the time!
Finding balance is best
Once again, you might be like me and still be stressed about that. I’ve gotta make sure I study more every day! But putting that pressure on yourself may not be very helpful either.
Instead, it’s about finding a balance. It’s about making sure you’re consistently working toward your goals—whatever those might be—while not putting too much pressure on yourself.
Not only is that important for your personal happiness, but it’s helpful for your success, too. Business Insider summed up the issue with some insights from a talk given by Richard Hamming, a Bell Labs mathematician. There were three takeaways especially important for this point.
1. “Plant many small seeds from which a mighty oak tree can grow.” Scientists always need to work on small problems, Hamming said, because you never know which of those will turn into big, life-changing projects.
2. “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Hamming said that if you have two people of equal ability and one of them works 10 percent more, that person will produce twice as much as the other. That’s because what you gain from extra work early on multiples itself later.
3. “Work with the door open. You will sense what is important.” If you are so focused on one thing that you ignore other fields, other people, and other things that interest you, you’ll eventually find yourself stuck. People who let themselves try new things and explore new paths often become the most innovative people in their fields.
Enjoy the journey
All of those tips share a common thing: it’s about exploration. That’s the other way to look at the ten thousand hours rule: you might as well make sure you’re enjoying the practice while you’re doing it, because you’re going to be doing it for a long time.
Especially while you’re in school, there’s no rush. Instead, try to find ways to consistently do a little more—a little more of whatever interests you right now. Do a few more math problems, read a few more books, talk to a few more people. It won’t seem like much now—which hopefully means it won’t add to your stress levels—but it will pay off in the long run.