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The magic number: 10 years

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

True leadership is less about raw talent than expertise. So says Malcolm Gladwell, the business and science guru.

Here’s his take on expertise: Real leaders aren’t just “naturals.” They are masters who have slaved at their craft for 10 years.

“And what’s 10 years?” Gladwell asks. “Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

From there, he says, hard work distinguishes leaders. “The people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else,” he says. “They work much, much harder.”

Examples:

• Mozart, a musical prodigy at age 6, didn’t actually compose his greatest work until he’d been at it more than 20 years. His first masterwork came at the 10-year mark.

• Chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer beat the 10-year requirement; it took him nine years to reach the elite level.

• The Beatles underwent an intensive apprenticeship in Germany, playing seven nights a week for about 18 months. By 1964, they’d performed about 1,200 times—more than most bands perform in a career. They’d been together about 10 years when they produced “Sgt. Pepper” and “The White Album.”

• Bill Joy, a whiz kid who lucked upon computer access at the University of Michigan in 1971 and created some of the programs still running on our machines, figures “I was probably programming 10 hours a day. By the time I was at Berkeley I was doing it day and night. … Sometimes I’d fall asleep at the keyboard. … So, maybe … 10,000 hours? That’s about right.”

• Bill Gates had unusual access to computers at his private school in 1968. At a time when most colleges didn’t have computer clubs, he was time-sharing on a computer linked from his school to a mainframe in downtown Seattle. Gates started putting in unlimited programming time as an eighth-grader. Soon he was working at computer jobs and sneaking out at night to do extra programming at the University of Washington. He’d been programming nonstop by the time he dropped out of college to start Microsoft.

— Adapted from Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown and Co. 

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