Ten Thousand Hours: What Does It Mean to Truly Work Hard?

By Justin Ho

Work hard. Work hard and you’ll get what you want. This is pretty much a notion that I lived by when I was growing up. I was initially driven by stereotypical Asian parents going Balto for those A’s. Mush! More homework problems. Mush! No more Starcraft for tonight. Mush! You can’t go to your basketball game because you have a calculus test tomorrow.

Those were high school problems. Fast forward to now. This past application cycle I received an interview at my #1 choice physical therapy school. Finally, all of those hours I had put in paid off. Hours spent studying my brains out just to get a mediocre GPA. Hours spent volunteering, observing, and working. Hours spent juggling multiple clubs, colleges, and extracurriculars. Hours of sleep sacrificed to make time in the day for everything else. All of that effort now validated.

On behalf of the faculty of the _______ Graduate Program in Physical Therapy, we thank you for your interest and application to our program, and also for participating in our interview process. We have reviewed several hundred applications from prospective students and our applicant pool was exceptionally strong this year. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer you a spot in our program this year.

What happened. What did I do wrong? Why wasn’t my hard work paying off?

I came to the conclusion that whether I did right or wrong didn’t matter. Someone else took my spot. Someone else worked that much harder than me and was awarded a position at my top school.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he writes about the stories of successful people and makes an attempt to find a trend concerning how they’ve found their success. Chapter 2 is titled “The 10,000-Hour Rule”.

The chapter brings forth the 10,000 hour rule which “researchers have settle down what they believe is the magic number for true expertise.” Gladwell provides specific examples of his own research on various psychological studies from professional hockey players and musicians to case studies of successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Joy and Bill Gates. With each reference, he explains how each case ends up having a rough total of ten thousand hours spent doing what they ended up being extremely successful at.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

According to him, having extraordinary talent plays a minimized role at the highest level of expertise while work ethic becomes the main driving force for their greatness. Meaning, there is a certain point where talent no longer distinguishes an individual. Gladwell cites Mozart, who was known as child prodigy that composed magnificent pieces. Though he was considered a musical genius, his earliest “masterwork” pieces were composed when he was 21 ten years after he began composing concertos. Mozart too went through his ten thousand hours to become who he was.

So what does this all mean? Work harder and I’ll become successful?

The people at the very top don’t work just harder, or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

In other words, if you want to become truly successful at something in life you have to work your ass off to achieve it. We are talking passions that outlive auxiliary goals. We are talking about sacrificing months or even years just to get one step closer to accomplishing our goals.

Let’s do the math. Suppose you spend 20 hours a week working at something. 20 hours a week multiplied by 52 weeks in a year, you get 1040 hours a year. So we are talking 10 years of straight up consistent hours of work to become a master in your craft. That is working hard.

Too often you see people on social media self-broadcast about their all-nighters or X amount of hours spent studying. How many of those hours were corrupted with distractions (Facebook, internet, texting, boasting about how they are working hard, etc.)? How many people end up last-second cramming and are forced to do all-nighters as a result of a quarter or semester of procrastination?

Here’s the thing, working hard gives you a chance at succeeding. There is no guarantee. Having the ability to do 10,000 hours of something is all granted on that individual’s opportunity. Gladwell refers to the Beatles and explains how they happened to perform in a city called Hamburg where they played 8 hours a night, 7 days a week. Hamburg, known for being a town with non-stop entertainment, gave the Beatles a medium to log massive amounts of performance hours. Gladwell continues to cite Bill Joy’s and Bill Gates’ fortunes and opportunities as they were growing up. Both technology revolutionaries were given rare access to room-sized computers to work on their code. Happening to have access to the equipment exponentially affected their learning curve, leading to their establishments of Sun Microsystems and Microsoft.

What truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities.”

Here is where Gladwell’s theory may be a little flawed. He concludes the chapter with a spreadsheet of the 75 richest people in human history. 19 of these 75 were born within a 9 year time frame. These rich individuals were born, apparently, at the right time. Though he was simply pointing out the trend, my interpretation was that these successful people had an extraordinarily rare and coincidental opportunity that correlated to their extreme success.

This idea doesn’t seem applicable to the current generation. We live in a generation where well-roundness is highly encouraged and embedded into the way we think. We are curious to take on multiple hobbies and different passions concurrent with whatever our primary one is. These definitely can be categorized as obstacles and distractions with respect to the ten thousand hour rule. For example, spending time in school learning about calculus and biology is almost pointless when you’re an aspiring artist. Even though the conditions may be a little different, let me make it clear, the generation difference is not a crutch.

Nowadays, we are all about instant gratification. The smartphone reflects our overall need for instant satisfaction. Just simply having internet on our phones gives us access to answers and new discoveries in the palm of our hands. For example, for those lucky enough to have 3G on our phones, we get ridiculously upset when Instagram takes forever to post our picture. We are generally inpatient and need immediate results. We want to heal from an injury within a week. We want to skip all the lines at Disneyland. We want to be successful within the least amount of time and effort. Honestly, it is rarely ever that easy.


Here is how to start and maintain a ten thousand hour mentality.

Set a Goal:

Your flight needs a destination. Find your passion and set your goal to what you want to achieve with that passion. Determine whether or not this passion is something worth prioritizing over what you are already doing. Create checkpoints for each stage of this goal and set deadlines as to when you want to realistically have it done by. Set time aside everyday to work on this goal. Stay true to what you set forth at the beginning.

Break Bad Habits:

Each day, time is wasted. Be conscious of that. Bad habits ranging from excessively following social media to waking up late can consume a lot of time. The rule of thumb is you can incorporate a new habit after 21 consecutive days of doing it. Whether or not it is exactly 21 day is besides the point. Just understand that it will take time to get rid of bad habits and create good ones.

Ask for Help:

The ten thousand hour mentality doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it all on your own. Recruit your own team or support group to help keep you in check and balanced because you will go through tough times along this journey. Let your peers guide you to your achievements. Let your peers criticize you and tell you if they feel something you’re doing is wrong. It’s one thing to be your own biggest critic, but if you have a friend with an outside perspective, they can truly call you out if you’re fooling yourself.

Take Opportunities:

There are always opportunities lying in front of you to further improve yourself. Step out of your comfort zone and take the chance to improve different personal attributes that can contribute to your overall goal. Opportunities are out there, it is more based on the willingness and curiosity of the individual. Not every opportunity will benefit you directly. Inspiration can come from the most spontaneous and unexpected sources.

Stay Patient and Positive:

Stay afloat with patience and a positive mentality. Understand that greatness doesn’t happen overnight. No doubt there will be peaks and valleys in your quest for those ten thousand hours. Understand that you’re working toward a greater goal and that you’re working to have a chance at getting there. The successful took on risks and challenges that gave themselves an extra edge in their field. Setbacks are a part of the learning process and you can persevere through them.

Work Hard:

I’m not telling you that your current work ethic won’t make you good at something. I’m telling you that if you want to become great at something, a ten thousand hour mentality needs to be implemented. Work harder than anyone you know, and then much more. It is a possible way to learn if you have what it takes to become successful. You’ll come across opportunities that may or may not be the outlying factor that puts you ahead of the rest.

Though the results of hard work is uncertain, what is certain is that there won’t be results without hard work. Start clocking in your ten thousand hours.



Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Photo Source: Justin Ho

5 thoughts on “Ten Thousand Hours: What Does It Mean to Truly Work Hard?

  1. Pingback: Carpe Omnia | The UP Lab

  2. Pingback: On the Rise: Izzy Loh – Engineer by Day, DJ by Night | The UP Lab

  3. Pingback: 8 Steps to Succeed After Failing | The UP Lab

  4. Thank you for challenging ideas that so many people accept to be “truth” just because they’re rooted in pop culture! I agree that Gladwell’s book inspires all but sets many up for disappointment. Work hard for the sake of working hard and not only because you expect to be rewarded for your hard work.

    Great job, Justin. 🙂


  5. Pingback: Bouncing Back After a Disappointing Year | The UP Lab

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s