Yesterday's article suggested that for a person to be a specialist in his field, he would need to chalk up more than 10,000 hours honing his skills. Pop legends The Beatles, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems and world-class violinists were mentioned as examples of people who dedicated the prime of their lives to achieving peak performance.

In a study of concert pianists, chess players, ice skaters, composers and fiction writers, neurologist Daniel Levitin has also found similar evidence that suggests that one needs to dedicate 10,000 hours of practice to achieve world-class status.

That works out to about five years of practising eight hours a day, five days a week. If we cut that to four hours a day, given that most people have other commitments, becoming an expert would take 10 years.

Dr Levitin has not found anyone who made it to the top by putting in less than 10,000 hours. This is because the brain takes that long to internalise the actions associated with mastery.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was bored easily in school. In 1968, his wealthy parents enrolled him in Lakeside, a private school, where Gates started playing with a computer when most colleges didn’t even have a computer club.

Said Mr Gates: “It was my obsession. I skipped athletics, I was programming at night and on weekends. It would be a rare week that we wouldn’t get 20 or 30 hours in. There was a period where Paul Allen (Microsoft’s co-founder) and I got in trouble for stealing a bunch of passwords and crashing the system.”

By the time he dropped out of Harvard to start his own software company, Bill Gates had already been programming practically non-stop for seven consecutive years — way past 10,000 hours. How many teenagers in the world have this kind of experience? Replies Mr Gates: “If there are 50 in the world, I’ll be stunned.”


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy who started writing music at the age of six. Psychologist Michael Howe says in his book, Genius Explained: “Mozart’s early works were not outstanding. The earliest pieces were probably written by his father. Many of Wolfgang’s childhood compositions were arrangement of works by other composers. His earliest masterpieces were composed at 21, by which time Mozart has already been composing for 10 years.”

Bobby Fischer

Most chess grandmasters take 10 years to hone their skills. Only Bobby Fischer made it in less time — nine years. At six, Fischer learned how to play chess using a set bought from a candy store below his apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

In his chess club president’s home, he played thousands of games and studied books in the large chess library there. In the process, he ate as many dinners there as in his own home.

Other world champions also began their careers at a very young age. Tiger Woods started playing golf at the age of two. At three, he won the under-10 golf competition.

Formula One race driver Lewis Hamilton started go-karting at the age of six. At 10, he won the British Karting Championship and at 16, started his car racing career. In 2007 he joined the McLaren F1 team as its second driver, and clinched the World Championship in 2008, the youngest driver at the time to win the title. 

Doing it faster

Assuming you spend four hours a day in a five-day week honing your craft, you will only clock 1,000 hours per year (assuming you take two weeks of annual leave). The four hours is strictly for sharpening your skills. It excludes administrative work, meals and social activities.

At this rate, you will take 10 years to achieve 10,000 hours of practising your craft. You can shorten this period by accelerating your learning through other means in the evenings and on weekends. Try the following:

    * Attending related seminars and workshops

    * Giving talks and leading discussion groups

    * Reading specialist books especially those not available in the libraries here

    * Spending time reading professional journals and published papers

    * Watching videos and listening to audio CDs

    * Researching your field on the Internet

    * Networking with specialists and professionals in your field

    * Visiting foundations, schools and research centres overseas during your vacation.

If you invest eight hours over the weekend boosting your knowledge or practising your craft, you will clock 1,400 hours in a year — and 10,000 hours in slightly over seven years.

Remember there are no short cuts to success. Every hour you waste will delay your objective. Avoid distracting activities. Focus on your core competencies. Every hour you invest will shorten your journey to become an outstanding specialist. Start today.