I’ve been hearing many folks mention the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell noted are required for mastery.  Unfortunately, more often than not, I’m hearing it used more or less as a weapon, at least when it comes to passing the notion on to kids.  “You know, it takes 10,000 hours to master something so no, you can’t skip practicing today!”  or “Get going – you’ve got a lot more hours to go!”

But it’s not the sheer quantity of hours spent that leads to mastery.  You have to not only spend the hours, you have to spend them a particular way.  David Shenk, in The Genius in All of Us, describes the research of expertise expert (!) Anders Ericsson: “…it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that Ericsson came to call ‘deliberate practice.'” Deliberate practice, Shenk goes on to explain, is “the type of practice where the individual [italics mine] keeps raising the bar of what he or she considers success.”

If your hope for a child is mastery – that he or she might embark on a 10,000 hour journey of some kind – a likely path to realizing that hope would logically begin with finding something that by its nature inspires the kind of intense pursuit that mastery demands.  We don’t really need expertise experts to point this out, but it’s amazing how much we do that ignores what we must know about what it takes to make something better.  It doesn’t just take showing up to put in the hours.

This may seem like bad news – that just getting kids to practice may not deliver what you’d hope it would.  It’s actually very good news, because if you heed Ericsson’s caution, that not all practice is created equal, you’ll likely find yourself getting better acquainted with your child and his or her actual capacities and passions.  What you’re likely to find is something your child can authentically commit to, in the kind of way that truly can lead to mastery. And if you start there, instead of simply mandating hour upon hour of something, you may well set your child on a path that offers not only access to mastery but great satisfaction and fulfillment as well.