03 August 2016 13:43:19 IST

The magic of 10,000

Practice of 10,000 hours is a measurable goal that can help professionals gain expertise

“A journey of thousand miles begins with one step,” said Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher (604 BC to 531 BC).

Physical fitness has been gaining a lot of attention in the last few years — work-related stress, coupled with personal problems, started to take a toll on individuals, who crumbled under the pressure.

Building stamina and working out to keep fit suddenly became an area of utmost interest to the young and old alike. Though basketball remains the most popular form of team sport in the US, walking too has gained momentum as an exercise that people engage in from the age of 15. In the last few months, fitness bands have emerged as the coolest must-have accessory for people from all ‘walks’ of life.

People are actively counting and tracking the number of steps they walk everyday. Individuals today form WhatsApp groups with friends and colleagues to share their progress; HR departments in companies are busy organising events and challenges to encourage their staff to get on their feet.

One magic number everybody is counting and chasing is 10,000 steps.

What is special about 10,000 steps? Where does the magic number originate from? Is there any connection between the famous 10,000 hours’ practice concept propounded by Malcolm Gladwell?

The back story

It is believed that the concept of 10,000 steps originated in Japan in the early 1960s as a run-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games. Pedometers then became very popular in Japanese society. One company introduced a Pedometer called 'manpo-kei' (meaning “10,000 steps meter” in Japanese). Ten thousand is a nice rounded number and actually makes an impact, when compared with, say, asking someone to walk eight km a day to stay fit. This 10,000 steps concept has an equal number of campaigners and critics.

Making of an expert

The more interesting, even controversial, topic is the 10,000 hours of practice theory. This concept can be traced back to an academic paper authored by Anders Ericsson in early 1990s.

In 'The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance', Professor Ericsson argued that intense practice of 10,000 hours makes a person an expert in any chosen field. Therefore, expertise is not about innate talent, but about perseverance and the will power to put in the hard work.

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell too popularised this concept in his book Outliers: The Story of Success . Ten thousand hours of deliberate practice is roughly 10 years of hard work — an average of 20 hours of concentrated work every week.

Gladwell goes on to reiterate, “Success is a function of persistence, doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”

The right balance

So, is this practice the secret sauce for success? Is it innate talent or deliberate practice, as suggested by Anders Ericsson?

“Let’s move away from the tyranny of or and embrace the genius of and ” — this is a famous quote from the book, Built to Last . Success in real life is a potent combination of talent honed by deliberate practice.

In one of the studies of successful baseball players, researchers noticed they have visual acuity of 20/13, against the normal 20/20. In simple words, these baseball players have an above average vision and can see an object at a distance of 20 feet, where normal people can see at 13 feet.

This is an example of innate talent or ability, and when such people practice regularly, they leverage their inborn talent and emerge as world-class baseball players.

Many people have an inborn interest in many forms of art or sport. While natural interest can help an individual gravitate towards his favourite hobby or sport or an academic subject, mere interest and passion is not enough to excel in the chosen field.

Diligent practice, coupled with focus and commitment to excel, are the differentiators between experts and novices. Tiger Woods, Sachin Tendulkar or Usain Bolt did not become champions by virtue of inborn interest and pure passion. Practice, that translates into long hours of hard work, made them the stars that they are.

When asked what he wanted to become, Bolt had once said: “For me, I’m focused on what I want to do. I know what I need to do to be a champion, so I’m working on it.”

We all know by his stupendous success on the track that ‘working on it’ implies rigorous, long and continuous practice sessions.

In the world of business and commerce, certain individuals have a head for numbers. If these people get formal accounting or finance training, they emerge as outstanding financial controllers or Chief Financial Officers.

President Barack Obama is arguably one of the most gifted of communicators. But he does not rest on his laurels and remain content with his innate talent. He works with communication experts to constantly upgrade his public speaking skills.

Constant honing

One of my former colleagues is an excellent manager — he likes to work with people and has the great ability to motivate and inspire his team to achieve outstanding results.

He decided to become an executive coach in the second innings of his career. He enrolled himself in a formal executive coach programme and, after intense training, received his certification. Today, he practices his coaching skills by offering pro bono coaching to budding executives. He has logged several hundred hours in his journey to become a reputed and much-sought-after executive coach.

‘Practice makes perfect’ are golden words, but generic in tone. Practice of 10,000 hours is a measurable goal that can help any aspiring professional gain expertise and achieve mastery in any field.

Gladwell says it for us in a nutshell: Achievement is talent plus preparation.