Updated on 07.30.10

Outliers and Frugality

Trent Hamm

About a year and a half ago, I reviewed Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book Outliers. In that review, I talked about one of Gladwell’s key points in the book, that a great deal of practice will make a person good at anything:

The more important (and interesting) part of the chapter, though, discusses the huge role that nearly-obsessive practice plays in making people great. Gladwell uses The Beatles and Bill Gates as examples here, showing how they both were able to take advantage of stupendous amounts of practice time to become very, very good at what they did. In each case, Gladwell estimated that it took 10,000 hours of practice for those individuals to hone their natural raw talents and become world class – roughly ten years of multiple hours of practice (3 or so on average) every single day. Gladwell offers many other examples of how this practice pays off, but that magic number of 10,000 hours pops up again and again.

10,000 hours of practice? That seems like an incredible amount of time invested in something. I tried to think of the people in my life who have ever put 10,000 hours of practice into anything in their life.

I have probably spent 10,000 hours writing over the past twenty years – and currently I’m making a living as a writer. The skill I’ve cultivated isn’t that of writing some sort of great work of fiction or nonfiction, but the ability to express ideas and produce a lot of solid writing very quickly. I can usually sit down with an idea and crank out something workable almost as fast as I can type – in fact, the vast majority of my work is coming up with ideas and filtering the ideas I do come up with.

I know two musicians who have likely invested 10,000 hours in practicing their instrument over their lifetime. One of them earns a solid side income from her piano playing – the other one makes a full living from offering lessons.

My father has spent 10,000 hours (at least) fishing in his life. He is just unbelievably capable of catching fish and has forgotten more solid techniques and tips than I’ll ever remember. He’s similarly spent that kind of time in his garden and manages to make (literally) acres of bountiful vegetable gardens look practically effortless.

What’s the point of all of this?

The point is that the only real cost for these people to gain the kind of skill that they can use to make a living was time. The actual cost per hour that they spent doing these things that they love was really, really low.

Take the second musician I mention above, a piano teacher. She got her start playing piano by banging on a neighbor’s piano as a young girl and began to discover that she really enjoyed playing. It became her primary hobby. She got an old piano as a gift when she was in middle school and purchased a $400 used piano herself as an adult. She guesses she’s spent $200 on sheet music over her life and maybe $250 on piano repairs. Add that up and you get $1,000. In other words, she’s invested only ten cents per hour in her life playing piano, doing something she loved, and she wound up with a skill that she’s earning a living from.

Every person I mention above has a similar story. Once they found the thing they loved doing, they just stuck with doing it, investing hours each day into the hobby, and the end result was a cost per hour measured in the pennies. What did they get out of it? Many, many hours spent doing what they love and a skill so refined that they could earn a living from it if they so chose.

Many people are highly eclectic in their hobbies, but there’s a huge cost associated with that. For starters, most hobbies you undertake have a startup cost and a maintenance cost. If you have ten hobbies, then there are ten startup costs and ten maintenance costs.

A much better approach is to dabble until you find a hobby or two that deeply resonates with you. Not only are you reducing your hobby costs, you’re focusing in on a smaller set of hobbies and are likely to become more skilled at those hobbies.

This is something I’m really starting to discover in my own life, mostly due to the piano lessons I’ve started taking. I’ve slowly been stripping away hobbies in my life over the past few years, leaving me with just a small handful. What I’ve found isn’t boredom – in fact, it’s the opposite.

I now feel like I have the ability to really dig deep into the hobbies I have remaining. The more time I spend playing the piano, for example, the more I enjoy it. The keys feel more natural to my fingers. My fingers aren’t stumbling over themselves (as much). My ability to sight-read music is getting stronger and stronger. I can play a couple simple songs from memory and can tackle quite a bit of simple music that’s in front of me. I’m getting better and I’m enjoying every second of it.

Spend some time asking yourself what hobbies you have – and which hobbies you could afford to trim from your routine. You have a garden, but are you really passionate about it? Pare some of the things you’re less passionate about out of your life to make room for things that you’re more passionate about.

What happens then? You spend less on your hobbies. You get to dig deeper into the ones you care about. Best of all, you open yourself up to the possibility of building a skill set that you can base a second career on, one deeply in line with what you care about the most.

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  1. Chris says:

    If my husband spent 10,000 hours skiing or golfing instead of working – he’d spend a fortune in ski passes or greens fees and would probably not have the professional high paying job he has now. There are often opportunity costs associated with pursuing your passion which aren’t included in your calculations.

  2. Chris says:

    While I hate to use them as an example usually, I really do think it applies in this case. Professional athletes, no matter how innately talented they are, still have to practice excessively to get to the point of the pro’s.

    The two pro athletes I know, one a hockey goalie and another a tennis player regularly practiced and honed their skills over time. In reality it is what distinguishes them as the sheer amount of perseverance to continue over and over and over is what really makes the difference between them and those that got fed up with what they were doing and quit.

  3. jay says:

    Ditto, athletes. First thought to mind was: Gymnasts. Same for musicians, dancers, anything skill driven. Innate talent will get you to the door, but determination and incessant practice is what it takes to truly succeed. And, truthfully, less talent, but incredible determination will get you further than raw, lazy talent.
    Am also, unfortunately, reminded of all those hobbies I dabbled in, bought all the supplies for, then set aside because I just didn’t CARE enough.

  4. Deb J says:

    I really like this post. I have been reminding myself that one of the reasons that I am not getting anything done that I want to get done is because I have myself spread too thin. SO I’m cutting out some of the hobbies that I no longer have a passion for. I have thought about picking up a new one but reading this made me realize that for all it would be a worthy hobby, it would take money as well as time to get anywhere with it. So I am not going to pick up that hobby. I would rather spend time than money on a hobby until it becomes (with a big IF here) something I want to actually sell.

  5. Stacy says:

    Makes me wonder what types of things some people HAVE put 10,000 hours of time into. I know lots of people who have probably put this much time into video games, or a particular game (I know a lot of gamers). But what has it gotten them?
    My aunt has put this much time into teaching middle schoolers, and she is truly a master at it.
    My dad has put much more than 10,000 hours into carpentry (doing it full time from age 18-50+), and he is a master carpenter- better at building than almost anyone else I have ever met.

    For me, the interesting part of a hobby is learning it. Once I’ve learned the basics most hobbies are no longer interesting. Of all of the hobbies I have ever picked up, there are only a few that I go back to over and over again.

  6. Systemizer says:

    “I have probably spent 10,000 hours writing …”

    A counterexample, perhaps?

  7. cathleen says:

    I have an opposite philosophy and it works for me :)
    I like to dabble and be an amateur in all things and an expert in none. It makes me happy. Renaissance woman :)

  8. Kate says:

    Like poster #6, I’m actually coming around to a different philosophy.

    For years now, I’ve taken the approach you’ve suggested above. Do one or two things, and do them well.

    Problem is, I’m never going to be a great triathlete, for instance. i enjoy all three of the activities involved in it, but the steps required to get really good just take the fun out of it for me. Same goes for several other activities I’ve been involved in.

    I’ve slowly been coming around to the idea that I DON’T need to be great at the activities I partake in- I just need to enjoy them (particularly since I have no desire to monetize them). I don’t need to be an ATHLETE- I just need to BE ACTIVE- or in other words, to quote JD, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

    So I won’t ever be a yoga instructor- that’s okay, I can enjoy a once-a-week class with my friend who’s an instructor. I go for a trail run or a cycle just for the fun of it- not to improve my time. Some activity is better than none- or a cycle of making myself miserable.

  9. Kevin says:

    “The only real cost for these people to gain the kind of skill that they can use to make a living was time.”


    What’s more valuable than time?

  10. I fully concur with #8. How many of us have 10,000 hours or extra time to develop some talent?

    At that rate, I’d be 150 before I was an expert at anything.

    I love the article, but don’t underestimate what a priceless commodity time is.

  11. Amanda says:

    I read Outliers and really enjoyed this part about becoming an expert. I was a professional ballerina for a few years (until I was 21), so I did some calculations on the number of hours I put in. Shortly before I retired at 21, I was at around 10,000 hours. Let me tell you, 10,000 hours is A LOT OF TIME! It was my LIFE from childhood until the day I quit.

    I think that most people do not need to put in 10,000 hours to a hobby to enjoy it and get very good at it.

  12. Gretchen says:

    I have no desire to be “nearly obsessive” about anything.

    it’s okay to just be good or okay at many things.

    Plus, unless the great thing is your job, literally impossible to spend 10,000 on something. The math just doesn’t work. Even then, eh. Not my thing.

  13. GayleRN says:

    To put it another way it is about 5 years of full time work. I well remember at the beginning of my career as a nurse going home every single day and putting in another one or two hours looking stuff up in my ever increasing professional library. There is a world of difference between a person who just puts in time, ie shows up at the workplace, and someone who puts in intensive practice and study over and above minimum requirements.

  14. Gretchen says:

    Ignore my last paragraph. I was doing the math incorrectly.

    The first 2 still stand.

  15. Ben J says:

    @#9 – consider this – if the average person watches 3 hours of TV each week night, that’s 780 hours per year allocated to that activity. 12.8 years of that amount of TV viewing is the 10,000 hours. Everyone has the same amount of time each day – 24 hours – some things are non-negotiable (one isn’t going to get far without sleep, grooming and eating or drinking) – but there is discretionary time.

  16. Collin says:

    A concert pianist I met, said: “To become good, practice till you get it right, to become great, practice till you never get it wrong”

  17. Doing the math in this thing is really not that complicated. 10,000 hours is really not a joke but if you would look into it, if you are busy or “too busy” putting in these 10,000 hours it would just feel like 100 hours. The number of hours is really eye catching but if you are already in the shoe of the one who is putting in these hours you will realize that it is somehow worth it. Especially if you are really enjoying what you do.

    Thanks for sharing this!


  18. Annie says:

    This reminds me of the hours and days I would tinker with computers–I ended up with a small computer repair business out of it (I ended up taking a computer repair class even) that has paid many a bill.

    I tend to be obsessive on one hobby at a time and then move on when it is no longer a challenge. I did it with sewing and still do it with computers. Maybe I should take up auto repair? That skill alone would save me a fortune lol!

  19. Sandy L says:

    I’m like a couple of the previous posters. If I spend too much time on any one particular thing, it becomes tedious to me.

    As a result, I’m always trying new and different things. There’s a lot out there to learn and explore. Even with my try anything once approach, at the end of my life, I’ll still have only scratched the surface.

    I do want to be great at some things, but for now, I’m still searching for that passion that nothing but time doing it will quench.

  20. katie says:

    I play an instrument, and while I have NO idea how many hours I’ve put into it (lessons, band, camp, performances since fourth grade, but I have slowed down recently after graduating college), I think I’m going to track my practice and see if I can get myself to that 10k mark, starting from 0 now (just for some challenge!). I bet I’d sound a lot better :)

    Thanks for an interesting post. I am also about to start professional school, and I think I will definitely have to put in some 10k hours before I become good at what I would like to do.

    Does that just mean I signed away 20k hours of my life? :)

  21. SAFTM says:

    Interesting way to look at mastering a skill set. My job requires me to work 1950 hours per year on client matters. I’m sure the number is not based on “mastering” a skill in 5 years, but only to make sure the company makes their investment back, but maybe they were onto something. And, because I’ve been working there for six years, each year with between 1935 ands 2350 hours, I guess I know what I’m doing….

  22. almost there says:

    10,000 hours of writing over 20 years and not a Holt Handbook in sight. Trent, please review your posts as a professional writer would. I find it doesn’t take that much time to proofread. Example: Your reader mailbag states questions are “boiled down to five word summaries”. No, some are five but many are less than five words. You can correct this by saying “boiled down to no more than five word summaries”. I know,I know, proper use of writing skills are not required in the blogging field. Keep on doing what you’re doing.

  23. Todd says:

    If I watched the same movie 5,000 times, I’d probably know every shadow cast in every scene. I’d much rather watch 5,000 movies, choosing only a few to watch two or three times.

    Whatever happened to variety being the spice of life? I’m much happier dabbling in many things than focusing too obsessively on one thing–in my hobbies as well as in my career. I guess I’ll never be the best but that’s fine with me.

  24. Systemizer says:

    almost there,

    Here’s how I would tackle the same section.


    “What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.”


    “Reader mailbag. To skip to a question, click on its link.”

  25. Dianne says:

    Good post. I’m in this place where I need to decide where I might want to continue dabbling, and where I need to become an expert. For me, it’s not so much this or that, but what now? Right now I’m making over a spare bedroom into an office/art studio. That’s paramount. It’s “so that” (another favorite mantra of mine) I can focus more intently on my writing/editing service. Some interests need to be put away for just a while, and some, perhaps, I will set aside forever.

  26. Johanna says:

    The whole point of hobbies is that they’re supposed to be fun. If you’re pushing yourself at a hobby way past the point where you’re having fun, that defeats the very purpose of having a hobby.

    So put me in the camp that says it’s OK to just enjoy doing something without striving to become (or even wanting to be) an expert at it. And it’s also OK if your interests change long before you hit 10,000 hours, as they sometimes do.

    Not only is it morally OK (and…why wouldn’t it be?), but it can also be plenty frugal. Suppose your friend the piano teacher spent $1000 in piano-related start-up costs, but ended up giving it up after 1000 hours (say, an hour a day for three years). That’s still just $1/hour – and if she sold the piano at the end, she could get a lot of that money back. Unless you’re really strapped for cash, the difference between ten cents and one dollar for an hour of leisure activity is not that much.

    It seems a bit strange that you’re using your own piano playing as an example here, since it hasn’t even been 10,000 hours, total, since you started your piano lessons (and I don’t suppose you’ve been practicing for anywhere near 24 hours a day). All that your example really proves, so far, is that certain activities become more enjoyable once you gain a basic level of competence.

    That could have been an interesting topic for a post, itself. But to say that it’s always a great idea to pick a hobby and become an expert at it, when you haven’t actually done that yet, is a bit like saying (if you’ll forgive me for bringing this up), “It’ll be so much fun to drive all around the Midwest with three children under the age of five,” before you’d actually done it.

  27. Liz says:

    I, too, had spread myself way too thin. I found that I spend much too much time on the computer and much too litle time with the people in my life.

  28. AndreaS says:

    When I read this post my first thought was of all the young men in my life who will spend 10,000 hours playing computer games in their free time. Surely this has ruined a generation of men. My son-in-law is artistically talented, but seldom has time (he says) to pursue that. Yet it seems that whenever there is a lull, he disappears to play computer games. In contrast, my other daughter has a boyfriend, who is building himself a wood splitter, and just needs a few more parts to complete it. He builds ice shacks of scrap materials to sell. He has restored a vintage rototiller. And on and on and on. He never plays computer games.
    I agree that you don’t need to spend 10,000 hours at any one thing. But there is a cumulative impact that results from decades of using your free minutes to learning new skills.
    Minutes are like dollars. You know people who say they can’t afford something, but a few dollars wasted every day is the difference in affording a big-ticket item or not. It is cumulative overtime. Similarly, people who say they don’t have time, almost always have wasted minutes. A few free minutes might not be enough time to spend on your hobby. When I have free time, say I’m waiting for a friend to come and she is a little late. I think, “What is the best thing I can do with these ten minutes?” If I do this six times, I have freed up an hour to go sew, for example. An hour here and an hour there, and before long I have finished sewing a quilt.

  29. Janet says:

    I am a student of art and one of my favorite artist/philosopher/authors is Frederick Franck, author of The Zen of Seeing. He wrote: “To learn to draw, draw 10,000 things.”

  30. C Spicer says:

    I enjoyed this post. As a professional musician living in Nashville, I have learned so many things that relate to this post. I would guess that I have practiced and tens of thousands of hours over the last 16 years of playing drums, and probably more than 10,000 hours writing music. Not to mention months worth of touring and being on the road. I love playing drums and writing music, but I face a true reality each day. Just one year ago my band had a record deal, a song at number one on the charts, and was touring nationally and I was making an average of only 400-600 dollars a month. It wasn’t enough and the whole thing fell apart for everyone. It took 2 years to get to that point, and I have worked as a freelance touring musician and session player, and made much better money, but it has nothing to do with how much you love it or even how talented you are, it has everything to do with who you know. Unfortunately, I have taken a new job at a bank which is not my passion but provides the stress relief needed to survive in life. I am not finished with my music career but its very hard to apply any of the principles of personal finance without INCOME.

  31. JC says:

    Interesting; I’m more disappointed in the couple of complaints about spending 10,000 hours playing video games and how it’s “ruined a generation of men.”

    Speaking from experience, I know it opened the doors for my becoming a video game tester. Which opened the doors for further analytical thinking, which translated into running stores and employees. “Wasting time” playing video games is an archaic mentality; just witness the success of Facebook applications.

    “Just playing games” is a school of thought best left in the past. There is game theory, building physics engines, crafting 3D models, world design and artistic rendering that goes into the entire process. These people get paid quite a bit of money, and that’s before we extend the sphere of influence into science, space travel and programming in general.

    “Ruined a generation of men?” Hardly. I think it more likely that the older generation has spent more time trying to quash the enthusiasm instead of harnessing it and seeking alternative methods of expression.

  32. Bill H says:

    Gladwell’s book makes a lot of assumptions, passes a lot of judgement based on a few choice examples and otherwise rehashes what everyone could figure out if they took the time to think about it. A reference manual for those who can’t think independently and nothing more.

    Post is a waste of time… you’re basically saying the more you do, the more money you spend. Well, yeah, obviously right?

  33. Landon says:

    This is a great and thought-provoking article.
    I have two main hobbies: Brazilian jiu jitsu and music. I also have a blog, like to read, want to start a side business, and surf once in a blue moon. I feel like I spread myself way too thin and am becoming a jack of all trades, master of none…

    Jiu jitsu in particular, is time consuming and needs to be done regularly otherwise you will not improve. I have considered giving it up because music is my dream… but sometimes I don’t feel particularly inspired to create music. Plus, I think it is important to maintain yourself physically with some kind of activity involving exercise.

    I think the best solution for people like me is rigid time management.

  34. chacha1 says:

    The point isn’t that you *have to* spend 10,000 hours at your hobby to get good at it. It may take much less time to get competent at something. Most of us have various competencies that we’ve established without investing a total of 10,000 hours spread across all of the skills involved.

    The point is that you *may have to* spend that much time to MASTER a skill.

    If you don’t care about MASTERING anything, then ignore this. If you do care, then quit saying it’s too much time. No amount of time is too much if you truly want to master something. It takes as much time as it takes, and if you care, the time doesn’t matter.

    I think AndreaS has the best comment here so far. She gets it.

  35. Brittes says:

    In orden to be very good at something… ,people; not that you have to. You do whatever you want to do, or live the way you want to live. But I guess the point is… in order to be very good at something. And it doesn´t mean it applies for each and everyone of us. In case someone out there wants to be great at something, that is something to consider.

  36. Wai L.Chui says:

    A hobby is by definition something you enjoy doing. I feel that you need to do those things well to enjoy them. However, most hobbists are never going to be good enough to be professionals. THe woman who plays piano will not play in a money making band. The tennis player will not get a job in the country club. That is OK. We need to enjoy the choices of life.

  37. inkybreath says:

    First, then number 10,000 is used way too simply. I agree with chacha1, there should be more regard for the varied aptitudes we possess. And, the decision is a huge component. Sure, some people glide into their profession or their personal talent. I think it is interesting to show the data is as many ways as possible, in lieu of guiding people to their own success. This is just another analogy for a personal goal. If the numbers were broadened into a reality range, people could find a way to set their sights on it. I think a visible end is often important to help trick the mind into continuing on a long path.

  38. Johanna says:

    @chacha1: I don’t think it’s so much a matter of getting it or not getting it as of there being two sides to the story. Because there are people who err in both directions here.

    AndreaS has in mind all the young men (and some young women, surely) who while away the hours playing computer games. I have in mind the young people who grew up pushing themselves incredibly hard at incredibly competitive activities (activities that often either were chosen for them when they were too young to do anything about it, or that they chose themselves, but less out of genuine interest than out of the desire to have something suitably impressive to put on a college application), constantly hearing that if you’re not one of the best, you don’t deserve to be there at all, and that there’s nothing more shameful than quitting.

    I’ve seen what that kind of pressure can do to people, and it’s not pretty. They (well, we) really do need to hear that it’s OK not to care about MASTERING a particular activity, and just to do it for fun.

  39. 8sml says:

    I don’t think AndreaS “gets it” at all. She characterizes time spent on a computer as “wasted”, then revels in having made a quilt. Maybe she enjoys the time making the quilt, maybe she finds value in giving it away, maybe she learns a transferable skill, and maybe she can sell the quilt and use the money for something else. But can’t she imagine that these “young men”, which she basically characterizes as a lost generation, might get the same outcome? Maybe they enjoy some leisure time playing a game, maybe they give away their work to others (open-source software development, for example), maybe they learn a transferable skill, maybe they are creating products (such as programs or videos) that they can sell…I fail to see how time spent building something physical such as a wood splitter or quilt is *necessarily* better spent than time spent at a computer. Maybe AndreaS can explain the difference.

  40. reulte says:

    8sml – Perhaps you don’t “get it”. AndreaS didn’t characterize time spent on a computer as wasted, but rather time spent on playing computer GAMES.

  41. 8sml says:

    Mea culpa.

  42. Todd H. Page says:

    I 100% agree.

    However, I would like to point out that most people are not simply given piano’s or other instruments. Musical gear is expensive.

    And more so, in the case of my 10,000 hours: photography.

    My camera was 3K with the lens, and I need other lens which are multiple hundreds each. A light set isn’t cheap either, or a flash.

    Starting out all you need is time and a camera someone gave you, but once it becomes more, there is definite cost, too. It is 100% worth it though.

  43. One of my venerable master used to saiy:
    The art in live; morally right thing is the hardest thing to do.

    I have also spend a lot of hours. I’m not sure if doing the right things.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  44. 10,000 hours of practice, im 26… i better start practicing!!! or it will never pay off

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