Did Seth Godin get where he is today on less than 10,000 hours worth of work?

This morning someone asked me on Twitter what I thought of Seth Godin’s recent post on his blog about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory. Interestingly, the theory is very close to one Godin writes about in his book The Dip. It led to a very thought-provoking discussion.

What is the 10,000 hour theory? In Malcolm Gladwells new book Outliers, he states that it takes 10,000 hours to become the best at something. How did he come up with that? He looked at Mozart, Bill Gates, the Beatles, Tiger Woods and others who are all undeniably the best in their chosen field. How did they overcome their various obstacles to become so successful? The common factor was the amount of time they put into becoming who they are. Approximately, 10,000 hours by Gladwell’s estimates.

But does it really take 10,000 hours? Not always, says Godin. He cites several examples in his blog post of people (and groups) that have risen to the top on far less than 10,000 hours of work including The Doors, The Bee Gees, Miley Cyrus, bloggers Doc Searls and Scoble and Molly Katzen, author of The Moosewood Cookbook. (I own her first cookbook and it is excellent.)

I think Gladwell would agree that those people are famous, and may even have reached top of their field. But are they what anyone would call the “best?” It is arguable.

Seth Godin himself may be a solid example of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory. Godin is a highly prolific writer, speaker and founder of a dot com company. And while he may enjoy his work — and may be lazily typing away on a Macbook Air, filling out his Squidoo lens while sipping a daiquiri on a beach somewhere in the Virgin Islands — it still is his hard work probably totaling over 10,000-some hours that has led him to become a respected expert in his field.

That being said, I come back to the word “expert.” Perhaps Gladwell shouldn’t have used the word “best.” After all, is Mozart the “best?” Certainly not all would agree. It comes down to a semantics issue. And with all due respect, I’m siding with Gladwell on this one.

Get the latest advertising, marketing, tech and industry news and tips served fresh daily! You’re invited to follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/demicooper.


  1. December 30, 2008

    Charles, I think you are correct that Godin has missed the point. Oddly, I’d already written a post a few weeks ago that Gladwell will be misunderstood. My own understanding (via David Shenk) of the research that Gladwell cites (I have not read Outliers myself yet) is that this refers to mastery of a complex task/discipline or what it takes to achieve virtuosity. I think that is a category different from expertise.

    From mastery or virtuosity, commercial or even critical success does not necessarily follow. As the meaning of this 10,000 hours of “work” is training within the discipline (over a period of 10 years I think), it can be assumed that it is mostly unremunerated. To pull that off requires character, but more often than not a volume and quality of familial and teacherly support that may itself be hard to come by.


  2. Mary
    December 31, 2008

    I have to say, I don’t think that there is any way you can put a time limit on how long it takes people to become the “best” at something. In my mind the word “best” is completely subjective. It’s like in art school when your teacher graded your project and gave you a C because it wasn’t the kind of art they liked. Does that mean you aren’t a good artist? Not necessarily.

    No matter what type of talents you are born with, you still need to practice them every day in order to become the best you can be. For example, just because you are musically inclined that doesn’t mean you can pick up the guitar and play without ever practicing. So I guess my point is that you can be the best you can be at something because of the hard work you put in to get to that point. But, no matter what,your work is still open to different points of view and is subject to criticism.

  3. EStreet
    December 31, 2008

    I’ve never read such a claim! After the 10,000 hours, then what? Are you done striving to be the best? What are you suppose to do after those hours? Being the best is something you internally put on yourself that never goes away. Granted, there’s people who have success a lot earlier than 10,000 hours but I think that has more to do with the people they know, timing, and just plain luck. It’s discouraging to me to put a time limit on being the best at something.

  4. mfd1
    December 31, 2008

    The book and theory both sound very interesting, and without reading it I have to say that if someone starts from scratch, and works 10 years at 10,000 hours (averages out to 2.7 hours a day), I should hope that they’d be VERY good at what they do. But also “the best” people are sometimes the prodigies, who just naturally know how to do what they do best. I worked for 10 years at around half that amount at the piano and would say I’m good at it, but even working 2.7 hours a day wouldn’t make me the best. A friend of mine is an expert and always was able to play the most complex pieces, any genre, and improvise as well because something in his bones and spirit let him do it, without practice. Does Gladwell account for prodigies?

  5. Leanne
    January 12, 2009

    I would say, after 10,000 hours you are experienced. Who knows if that amount of time actually made you any good at it or not. But at least you can say you are very experienced.