Transforming Leadership to Shape the Future

Strategic Leadership Institute

P.O. Box 14137, Sinoville
Pretoria, 0129
+27 (12) 567-6512
+27 82 925 4125

What's the "Secret for Success": 10 000 Hours of Practice or Using Your Natural Talents?

09/11/2011 11:17


What is the ultimate “secret for success” – something that explains why or how some individuals rise above the crowd and become the celebrated success stories of their time? Right now there are two popular theories which explain exceptional success but which some believe to be contradicting each other.1

On the one hand there is the now very familiar 10 000 Hour Rule made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success. This theory is based on research that was conducted among students at the Berlin Academy of Music in the early 1990’s by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson in the early 1990s. Ericsson and his team divided the students into three groups ranked by excellence and then compared the students’ achievement with hours of practice. They found that the top performers had all put in about 10 000 hours of practice, the good performers had practiced for about 8 000 hours and the average performers for around 4 000 hours. Hence the “10 000-Hour Rule” which Gladwell claims (with convincing examples ranging from the Beatles to Bill Gates) to be the key to success in any field: practicing a specific task for about 10 000 hours. Taking this theory to the extreme, it would imply that anyone can become successful in just about anything if they are willing to spend the 10 000 hours in training or practice.

The other popular success theory of our time is that to be successful we need to identify, develop and use our natural talents. The Gallup Organization has interviewed literally millions of employees from hundreds of companies all over the globe to determine why some individuals and organizations are successful and others are not. The pattern that emerged from this research was that the more people are able to use their natural talents or strengths in their daily work, the more effective they are in what they do and the more committed they are to their job. Gallup identified a total of 34 talents – defined as “your naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behaviour”. To be really successful and effective in what we do, we need to turn these talents into strengths (defined as “consistent near perfect performance in an activity”) by adding knowledge (information and lessons learnt), skills (practical steps of an activity) and experience.2 To discover or identify individual talents (or strengths, depending on the individual’s development), Gallup has developed the StrengthsFinder assessment tool which measures and ranks individual talents from 1-34. Once you know what your top talents are, the challenge is to start focusing on them in order to develop and apply them to become more effective and ultimately also more fulfilled in what you do.

So do I need to spend the 10 000 hours or do I need to discover and work with my talents? Are these two theories really at odds with each other? It is significant that both Gladwell and Gallup uses Bill Gates and Tiger Woods, among others, as examples of success stories which illustrate their respective theories. “Bill Gates’s genius at taking innovations and transforming them into user-friendly applications is a strength,” according to Gallup.2 “By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own computer software company,” Gladwell argues, “he’d been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past 10,000 hours.”3 While for the authors these examples prove the validity of their own theories, it does much more – it demonstrates the tremendous creative power unleashed when high potential individuals spend the time and energy to develop their talents into strengths.

Although anyone could probably become fairly good at just about anything if they’re willing to practice for 10 000 hours, we only excel and become really expert if we spend those hours honing our natural talents into strengths or, in the case of natural geniuses, super-strengths. So can everyone’s talents be developed to become super-strengths? No, of course not, some people just naturally have ‘stronger’ talents than others. Can everyone attain some level of extraordinary success by discovering and developing their natural talents through practice and training? Yes, I believe so with my heart and soul.

PS: For the sake of this article I ignored an important aspect of Gladwell’s premise – the fact that “outlying” factors over which we have no control (time of birth, opportunities, etc.) also plays a major role in determining our ability to be successful. I did this exactly because we have no control over these factors, so instead of dwelling on them I opt to work with what I can control. If you’re interested to learn more about talent discovery and development, visit SLI's SrengthsFinder Page or contact us by email at: .


1. Mangan, D. (2010). The Talent Debate. HBD: Human Biodiversity, Friday, 19 November 2010. Retrieved November 8, 2010 from
2. Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D.O. (2005). Now, Discover Your Strengths. London: UK, Pocket Books.
3. Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success.