Practice is Underrated.
How to achieve greatness with the 10,000 hour rule.
In second grade, my dad told me “you should learn music.”
My grandfather (my dad’s dad) was a musician. He played piano and was an amazing tenor singer. I remember times when he would visit, and after dinners he’d get on the piano bench, and sing while playing the keyboard.
My dad learnt piano as well, so being a musician was sort of a family thing. He got my grandfather to teach me a bit of piano when I was in the first grade, but my grandfather told me my hands weren’t right for piano. I remember my dad then telling me I could either take singing lessons, or take violin lessons. At that time, I thought my little boy voice sounded like a girl. I was embarrassed to take singing lessons.
The same week, my dad rented a violin, found a teacher, and signed me up for lessons.
That was the start of a 10 year journey consistently playing violin basically everyday. Some days were just 30 minutes, some days were 3+ hours.
In the first couple years, daily playing was just to learn the basics. Once the basics were there, it quickly turned into practicing so I could show up to my lessons every week having made a little bit of progress.
The learning curve looked like this:
At first, every hour of practice was highly effective in developing my skill level. As I got better, it was harder and harder to improve. It would take hours and hours practicing to make marginal improvements in my skill level. We’ll get back to that later.
Around junior high, I’ve learnt the basics of violin, and my incentive to practice for improving my skill level in my personal lessons was dwindling. When comparing myself to most of my friends in school, I was already talented. I saw myself as the best musician in my junior high. Not to be pretentious, but I think others saw it too.
That’s around when I got into junior orchestra. To get in, you had to audition and show what skill level you were. This determined what group you’d get put into. However, despite this grouping of musicians to ‘similar’ skill levels, there was still quite a lot of disparity between the best players and the worst players in each group.
Obviously, you’d expect this skill disparity between other groups. Of course the musicians in the upper level group are better than me. That makes sense.
Seeing this disparity within my own group was interesting to me though. I was usually just above average in terms of relative skill level to the other kids in my orchestra. I’d think to myself — “aren’t we supposed to be the same level?”
This was far from true.
What was going on here?
As a kid who generally thought of himself as “good,” being “average” or even below average in these groups was a new thing for me.
In his TedTalk, Josh Kaufman describes the first 20 hours of learning any skill as the most impactful in your growth. He explains that once you get past the first 20 hours of learning and practicing, you’re “good.” It’s the same chart from before, but he believes the peak is at 20 hours. His thesis says that after 20 hours, it becomes harder and harder to increase your skills. I’ve found my own scale of this logarithmic curve, but for the most part I agree.
By junior high, I would have definitely past the 20 hours threshold. I was “good.” This made me confident. However, these kids who were in the orchestra groups I was in, they weren’t there trying to be just “good.” They were there to be “great.”
In hindsight, I’d like to replace the word “confidence” in that last paragraph with the word “complacent.”
Around my school friends who were not as knowledgeable in music as I, I thought I was awesome. Around these kids in my orchestra, I was not so awesome.
After realizing this, my motivation to practice became very external. Yes, I was good enough for myself — I knew I’ve gotten far enough on my musical journey that most people I knew could not do what I do. However, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve still barely scratched the surface. This was most apparent when comparing myself to the other players in my orchestra.
What made the distinction between the best and worst players?
Like I said before, once I learnt the basics, improving my skills became exponentially harder and harder. In the beginning, nailing two bars was easy and could be done within a couple minutes. Now it could take hours of practice to lock down two bars.
When you really look at it though, I’m comparing the following four bars:
Jokes aside, continuing to make that progress was necessary for me, and is necessary for anyone who aims to be “great.” I couldn’t just do 20 hours and stop at “good enough.” I aspired to make those incremental improvements to be “great.”
I began to learn the value of practice as I got into higher level orchestra groups. I didn’t want to be the worst player in the group. I don’t think anyone wants that. So I was slightly competitive with it. I don’t think that’s bad.
I practiced harder and improved.
However, my skill level cycled back to me when I got into the advanced strings group at my high school. We were considered the top ensemble in the school, composed of kids who’ve been taking lessons since before grade school. When you compared that group to the band kids who first learned their instrument in grade 7, or to some of the choir kids whose first time learning music was right there in the grade 10 choir, the skill disparity was highly visible.
Now that I got the flex out of the way, I want to go back to how this was great and horrible for me at the same time. It was nice to have confidence again and know that I was “someone.” I was part of the prestigious advanced strings ensemble who won competitions and played beautifully complex compositions by elite classical composers. However, it fuelled my pretentiousness and a side of my came out that, in hindsight, I hate. It was boastful side. The overconfident side.
I think this was the peak of my external motivation. I was practicing to keep up with my peers, but not to get any better. It was all for the wrong reasons.
We were a small group. The skill disparity becomes a lot more evident when we each take turns playing a part by ourselves. You could tell who practiced and who didn’t. Even then, I could get by without putting that much practice in. I was “good enough.”
In grade 11, I decided to stop taking private lessons because I thought I learnt enough. Enough to keep my position in advanced strings. Enough to be respected by my peers. Enough.
That’s all I wanted — to be enough.
I remember in one of my last sessions with my private teacher, she recommended me a book called “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” by Geoffrey Colvin. It’s a great read, I highly recommend it.
One of the major themes, as evidenced by the title, is how “great” people get to where they are not by talent alone, but through hard work.
None of the greatest musicians in the world were born with prodigy skills. None of the greatest athletes were born with their peak athletic abilities. Sure, some people are born with more favourable traits for certain things, like height in basketball players, or narrow fingers for pianists. However, just because a person is given height, does not guarantee them an NBA championship. They still have to work for it.
When I first heard all this back in high school, I didn’t get it. I hated the idea of practice. At this point, I’ve put in hundreds, if not thousands of hours into practicing violin.
I was tired of it. I just wanted to be “good enough.” And I thought I was.
So what else would a tired and complacent 16 year old boy do?
I quit violin lessons in 2015.
From there, the only practice I was doing was for the advanced strings group, but even then it wasn’t much anymore.
When I got into university in 2016, I stopped practicing altogether.
The 10,000 hour rule.
Over the past four years, I’ve lost a lot of my “talent.”
Around my second year of university, I learnt about the 10,000 hour rule by Malcolm Gladwell. If you’re not familiar with it, he basically states that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate” practice to become “world-class” in any field. At first I said, yeah that makes sense, and shrugged off this idea. I think I was still traumatized at what I thought was a lot of practice already held on my end.
However, I came back to this rule when I re-watched “Whiplash” a couple weeks ago. It reinforced the idea that it does take practice to become great. It’s not easy. It’s a struggle.
I’ve been battling complacency in other areas of my life recently, so this message hit me like a truck. Immediately after watching that movie, I felt attacked. I knew that lately I haven’t been putting in enough of the work. I’ve been relying too much on my talent.
The next day, I was watching some videos and came across a remix of the first movement of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I bet you even know the piece. It’s very popular.
The overall piece is fairly easy for violinists at my grade level (which is really higher than my current skill level). There’s this solo passage around the middle of the piece though that is absolutely killer. This passage was featured in that remix I found, and I thought — “I want to learn this.”
After listening to it a couple times, I didn’t think it would be too hard to learn given my skill level.
Boy was I wrong.
I looked up the sheet music and started sight reading the passage. Playing it slowly, it wasn’t too difficult to learn the notes. But when I put on the metronome and set it to full speed, I could barely get a couple right notes in before messing up. Full speed is typically around 116bpm.
I went back to refining the notes slowly before turning the metronome back on. When I felt comfortable, I turned the metronome back on at 100bpm. It was too fast. I dialled it down to 90bpm. Still too fast.
I got down to 80bpm and still found it a struggle to keep up, but it was finally at a manageable speed. It got to a point where three hours passed and my hand started to hurt. I decided to stop for that day and continue the next day.
Remember when my grandfather told me my fingers weren’t made for piano? Turns out they are also somewhat hindering with violin too. At least they were for this passage.
Over the next couple days, I put in around 2–4 hours a day and got the passage up to a comfortable 88bpm. Anything above 90 was just not comprehensible for my dulled brain and my fingers which were not nimble enough.
Over the past week, I’ve probably put in around 2 hours a day practicing, but instead of just practicing the same 9 bars over and over, I started incorporating other elements of practice that I used to do — things like scales and exercises. Doing these is like warming up in the gym with cardio, or like focusing on technique by doing lightweight movements but very slowly and intentionally. It’s not the same kind of practice as I had before, nowhere near as efficient, but it’s a start.
The extra point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not just about putting in the hours, but the hours have to be intentional, deliberate, and consistent. You have to keep it up.
I’ve put in the hours to develop a skill level that should, in theory, be enough to nail this passage no problem. The problem is that I took a four year hiatus and now my skills are not as sharp. I have to put in the work to relearn it, but I can’t just play the same 9 bars over and over again — I have to incorporate deliberate training to focus on minute technique.
Just like a gym bro who takes a leave of absence from the gym for a while, it takes a while to get back in and back to the same level of performance as your peak. They have to focus on technique and do lighter weights. Maybe you won’t even be able to get back to your peak. But the effort is worth it. You just have to get started and put the hours in.
That’s what I want to focus on. Putting the hours in. As important as it is to make it deliberate and intentional once you are putting the hours in, efficiency and quality doesn’t matter when you aren’t even putting the hours in. I wasn’t for the past 4 years.
When I look back and do the rough math, 10,000 hours isn’t even there. I started in grade 2, and effectively stopped in grade 12. That’s ten years, which on average I practiced 2 hours a day (generously taking into account solo practice and ensemble practices). That’s roughly 7300 hours of practice in ten years.
In ten years, I’ve practiced 7300 hours of violin. That’s not even 10,000. Who was I to think that I was “great” at any point?
I was naive. I got complacent.
Sure, you can learn anything in 20 hours and be good. However, hard work and many more hours of practice is necessary to achieve greatness. For me and my music journey, it translates to practicing daily again so I can develop me skills again and finally reach the 10,000 hour mark (and even keep going after that).
Music isn’t even my main goal. I have so many other parts of my life that I want to improve, and to do so, I need to develop more habits to practice. Just like I do with violin. If I can translate this practice energy from violin into every other skill I learn, then I think life will turn out just alright for me. I don’t see why it couldn’t for anyone who finds their own version of practicing.
I really think this is the most transferrable skill. It’s not just important for musicians, or top athletes. Once you find some balance, consistency, or routine in your journey (which I know is hard for some but it will come — that could be another article on it’s own), then the biggest challenge is keeping the habits consistent.
Whatever your goal is, there’s a high likelihood that someone else has already taken that path. Learn from others. Find a mentor — someone to humble and guide you. Be a mentor — teaching is a great way to reinforce skills and confidence. Even if you think you’re taking “a path that not many others take,” I can bet there’s always someone else doing it. Once you find the community, you can find the best ways to practice, develop your skills, and get closer to achieving your goals.
Be a mentor — teaching is a great way to reinforce skills and confidence.
In a way, even this article is a form of practice for me. One goal I have is to get better at writing. So here I am. I know this is not the best writing ever. In fact, this is highly likely far from the best writing ever. However, it’s about putting the hours in. Here I am.
I think we need to advocate the culture of practice more. In seeing more “TwoSet Violin” videos on my instagram feed, I’m more consistently being reminded that practice is important. Most of the time they literally tell you to go practice at the end of their video (seriously, just even check out their website and you’ll see what I mean — not an ad).
I think we need more of this culture. Practice culture.
I also want to clarify that it’s not the same as “hustle” culture. I feel like a lot of hustle culture is really promoting overworking without intention. In my previous experience, “hustling” can get really mindless just to get a job done. Meanwhile, mindless practice can actually make you worse. I also feel like a lot of wannabe entrepreneurs are out there preaching hustle, but they aren’t actually putting in the work. Now these are all just my opinions, but hustle culture feels unintentional, inefficient, mindless, and pretentious.
That’s not practice. Practice has intention. Practice has humility to know you aren’t the best, but that’s okay — that’s why you’re practicing. Practice is the blend of work hard, work smart, and work long. When you practice, you do it because you love it, and you want to get better. You realize that the curve to get better requires more of your effort as time passes, but you also realize that this effort is worth it to become better. You practice NOT to be perfect, but to realize perfect doesn’t exist. You practice to not settle for “good enough,” but to be “great.”
That’s practice culture.
If there’s one thing from this whole rant to takeaway, is that you’ve spent enough time reading this. You know what to do. You have a dream. I know you do. Now go make it happen.