The 10,000 Hours Rule Doesn’t Apply to the Single Most Important Skill. Here’s Why:
Malcolm Gladwell made famous the idea that mastering a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice (here’s the original 1993 paper by K. Anders Ericsson). But as automation takes over more facets of our world and economy, becoming exceptionally good at one specific, repeatable, skill may not be as valuable as it once was.
Instead, as automation and artificial intelligence make the repeating of known processes easier and cheaper, the value in our economy starts to shift further away from the repeating of tasks and more toward the creation of new solutions, approaches and processes. So, back to Gladwell and 10,000 hours:
What if the skill you really need to master in our changing world isn’t an existing skill at all, but instead is the ability to solve new problems as they arise? In other words, what if the skill you’re trying to master is creativity?
Not your dad’s “creativity”
First, it’s probably helpful to talk through what we mean by “creativity.” When most people think about the word, their mind inevitably conjures up images of painters and poets, designers and musicians. To say this another way, they confuse creative mediums with creativity. In truth, the painter who paints endless reproductions of someone else’s work isn’t being creative, nor is the musician who flawlessly plays someone else’s composition. That’s because creativity isn’t about medium — it’s about creating something new.
Using this more inclusive (and I would say more accurate) view of creativity, it’s still true that many individuals working in creative mediums are “creative.” But so are many programmers, marketers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and people across every job title. Bottom line: if you’re coming up with new solutions to problems, you are a creative — and you’re doing the most valuable work there is.
Creativity can’t be “brute forced”
Assuming you buy the premise that creativity is an increasingly important skill, why can’t you treat it like every other skill? Practice makes perfect (and 10,000 hours makes mastery), right?
The reason has to do with the nature of how creativity works. Steve Jobs captured it perfectly in a Wired interview back in 1996:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences… Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
If you’re not an Apple fan, here’s another example: in this study of scientific publications, researchers found that interdisciplinary research generally leads to higher citation volume. Looking at this more broadly: when people cross-pollinate ideas from a broader set of disciplines, the solutions they come up with are more interesting… more cited… more creative.
So if creativity is really just taking skills and ideas from one area of your life, and plugging them into new configurations, then it stands that the raw material of creativity is breadth of experience (Steve Jobs’ “dots”). If you don’t have the dots to connect though, there’s no amount of practice that can make you more creative.
“Intellectual Cross-training”: the right workout regimen for your creative muscles
Former NBA champion and superstar Hakeem Olajuwon was one of the greatest basketball players of the 80s and 90s. The remarkable thing about his story though, is for most of his life, he only played soccer. He didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 17, merely a year before he joined the University of Houston as the centerpiece to their historically good team, and a mere four years before being drafted first in the NBA draft (famously, two picks ahead of Michael Jordan). Throughout his career, Olajuwon, using his signature “Dream Shake,” was known for constantly feigning and outsmarting players who’d played their whole lives. The move misdirected his opponents, and played to Olajuwon’s strength — his footwork, honed by years of soccer.
The moral of the story, of course, is just as Olajuwon became uniquely (some might even say creatively) great by bringing a skill set from a different discipline (soccer) to his sport of choice (basketball), I’d argue that the best way to make yourself more creative is through exposing yourself to a lot of different ideas and cross-pollinating other disciplines into whatever it is that you primarily do. This is a practice that I call “intellectual cross-training.”
What intellectual cross-training entails is different for everyone. You could take up a new hobby/ side hustle/ side project… You could explore classes on a platform like the company I work for, Skillshare… Or maybe you could just start reading a lot in a completely new field. Whatever you decide, the key is to pursue interests, learning and experiences outside your primary discipline.
Maybe you’ll surprise yourself and find something new that you’re really passionate about. At the very least though, you’ll collect Steve Jobs’ metaphorical dots — the connecting of which form the basis of creativity and success in our rapidly changing world.