How Long Does It Take to Achieve Mastery in a Skill?

Examining the 10-year rule and the debate of practice versus talent

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

How many years of deliberate practice does it take to achieve mastery in a particular field or endeavor? Dr. Restak asked professor K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University who has spent his lifetime studying superior performers in the arts, sciences, and sports. 

Artist painting in her studio late at night
Key to the debate of practice versus talent is the generally accepted 10-year rule, which says it takes 10 years of learning and practicing a skill or craft before reaching an expert level of performance. Photo by Gorodenkoff /Shutterstock

10-Year Rule

According to Ericsson, you need 10 years of both deliberate practice and experience to acquire expertise in fields such as acting, speaking a foreign language fluently, and athletics. Psychologists often refer to this as the 10-year rule.

The part of the brain most important for deliberate practice is the frontal lobes, which is responsible for drive, sequencing, executive control, and future memory. Drive is the determination to stick with a training program. 

Sequencing is getting everything into the proper sequence for later processing. Executive control is monitoring one’s responses and managing separate processes. Future memory is keeping future goals in mind and building on the past performances and present abilities.

PET scans confirm increased frontal activity in experts. The German math expert and prodigy Rudiger Gramm showed increased frontal activity when tested. 

He likes to talk about maintaining a library of notepads. This is not typically seen in people with underdeveloped math skills. Gustavo Romero is another expert who engages in deliberate practice and supports the 10-year rule. 

Deliberate Practice for Musicians

“Several years ago, I got a letter inviting me to give a speech at the Mozart Festival in La Jolla,” Dr. Restak said. “I was pleased and happy to go out there. I did a little reading and discovered that this is an area where the world’s experts come to speak about Mozart.”

Dr. Restak called up the director and explained that while he loves Mozart, he doesn’t consider himself an expert. The director insisted that they wanted him to come anyway and speak about the brain, as Restak had published a book called Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot

“Unknown to me, Gustavo Romero, who was the performer, had gotten that book thinking it was about Mozart,” Dr. Restak said. “When he found out it wasn’t, he read it anyway and loved it and wanted to meet me. So unknown to me, he was the one who had invited me out there.”

After the concert and Dr. Restak’s talk, Romero invited him to a party. This an opportunity for Dr. Restak to ask a question that he’d always wanted to ask of a concert pianist: “How much do you practice?”

Romera replied that he played Carnegie Hall when he was age 12 or 13, and he’d always practiced four to six hours a day since then. Over time, he had stored all the compositions of Mozart in his frontal lobes.

What is the relationship between Romero’s many hours of practice and his willingness to put in those hours? Is the ability to form larger-than-normal, long-term memories a genetic trait? Or is it based on individual effort and persistence? 

Talent Versus Hard Work

Important implications arise from the answers to these questions. If genius is genetic, then most of us are out of luck. If individual effort is the essential component, then most people would be capable of achieving levels of performance that will distinguish them from the vast majority of people who are unwilling or unable to put in those 10 years of deliberate practice. 

What’s most important is the decision to make the effort and the resolution to keep to the rigorous schedule. Deliberate practice is more important than natural talent in determining success, according to Dr. Ericsson.

He is not alone in that opinion; many world class performers have weighed in on the side of deliberate practice. For example, in a famous interview with Larry King, Marlon Brando made the comment that with the proper training, literally anyone could be an actor.

Graham Greene, the novelist, was asked to comment on whether anyone could be a novelist. He stated, “One has no talent. I have no talent. It’s just a question of working, of being willing to put in the time.” 

Is there evidence for this new and rather unorthodox opinion? A study of musical trainees at the Music Academy of Berlin supports this theory. 

The researchers studied superior students who went on to become concert pianists and have future concert careers. They practiced 24 hours a week. 

Good students practiced nine hours per week. Similar patterns of long and intensive practice are found among athletes, chess players, mathematicians, and memory virtuosos.

Therefore, the 10-year rule alone does not explain the success of experts. Rather, it is putting in the time and effort on a daily and weekly basis over a sustained period.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.