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How to Really Master a Skill

How many hours does it take to master a skill? Well, if you read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers, you’ll remember that “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” This 10-000 Hour Rule is a heavily cited pedagogy in the world of lifelong learning. But I have some good news!

It turns out that this is not what the research shows. Put differently: For any skill you’re trying to master, you can become extremely proficient in much less time than Gladwell suggests. Keep reading to find out how.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published his New York Times bestseller, Outliers. It’s within this book—based largely on the research of Anders Ericsson—that Gladwell frequently talks about the 10,000-Hour Rule, citing it as “the magic number of greatness.”

The book looks at a number of “outliers”, people who are extraordinarily proficient in certain subjects or skills. It then tries to break down what helped them to become outliers.

According to Gladwell, one common factor among these carefully selected individuals was the amount of time they practiced within their area of study. It appeared that only by reaching 10,000 hours of practice (that’s about 90 minutes per day for 20 years) could one become an outlier. To use another of Gladwell’s popular terms, 10,000 hours is the “Tipping-Point” of greatness. You can see him explaining this here:

In the years following the book’s publication, this 10,000-Hour Rule has become a platitude for almost anyone wanting to become highly proficient in any skill, at any point in their lives. This is despite increasing evidence showing that the 10,000-Hour Rule is largely inaccurate.

This inaccuracy is good news for any of us looking to become adept at a new skill. Where Gladwell’s rule promised us a massive undertaking to achieve proficiency, it could instead be much easier than you’ve been led to believe.

The 10,000 Hour Rule Is Wrong

Anders Ericsson is a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. It’s on the back of his research on Deliberate Practice

Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice

Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice

It’s all too easy to feel crestfallen when you’re arduously trying to improve a certain skill. Use the power of “deliberate practice” to get you over those infuriating plateaus.
Read More

that Gladwell constructed his book and his 10,000-Hour Rule. Some people have misattributed this rule to Ericsson himself, which he sought to correct due to its misrepresentation of his actual findings.

Ericsson describes what could only be Gladwell’s work as:

“[A] popularized but simplistic view of our work, which suggests that anyone who has accumulated sufficient number of hours of practice in a given domain will automatically become an expert and a champion.”

Ericsson went on record clarifying that this is not what his research shows. Within that study, there was no magic number for greatness. 10,000 hours was not actually a number of hours reached, but an average of the time elites spent practicing. Some practiced for much less than 10,000 hours. Others for over 25,000 hours.

Additionally, Gladwell fails to adequately discriminate between the quantity of hours spent practicing, and the quality of that practice. This misses a huge portion of Ericsson’s findings, and seems to be the reason why Tim Ferriss scoffs at Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule in this video.

Additionally, another of Ericsson’s studies looks at skills which can be mastered in “a minute fraction of the 10,000 hours estimated to be necessary to attain high levels of expert performance” by using very specific, deliberate methods of practice.

The takeaway is that practice may be important, but it’s far from the whole story. Gladwell has succumbed to survivor bias. By focusing on what the successful did to get to the top, he has failed to satisfactorily account for the multitudes who logged their 10,000+ hours, yet still failed to attain mastery.

To add more weight to this argument, another study in Intelligence journal attributed practice to only “about one-third of the reliable variance in performance in chess and music”. The largest meta-analysis in the field found that practice may be responsible for as little as 12% of mastery.

That means there’s far more to mastering a skill than just months or years of practice. Genetics and the amount of competition in a given area play some role, for sure. But science is also giving us glimpses into what else we can do to learn more efficiently.

Tactics for Learning Faster

In recent years there has been a flurry of interest in skill acquisition, and particularly rapid skill acquisition. Tim Ferriss penned The Four-Hour Chef—a 672-page behemoth—tackling this very subject.

Throughout his book Ferriss introduced millions of readers to the idea of meta-learning. That is, the learning about learning. Once we understand how our brain and body learn, we can create a far more efficient learning routine.

In fact, Ferriss, during a SXSWi presentation claimed:

Mastering a skill in less time

This may or may not be an exaggeration, but what Ferriss is emphasizing here is the quality of practice over the quantity. Even if the real figure is two-years, not six-months (to become world-class in almost any skill) it’s a huge improvement on Gladwell’s disheartening 10,000-Hour Rule.

What’s more, studies in both science and psychology are repeatedly showing us new—or at least more nuanced—ways of learning. These refined tactics and strategies are able to help us become proficient, expert, masterful, or at least very good in a specific domain in a lot less time than we might suppose.

Let me give you just a few of these.

1. Create a Feedback Loop

By creating a feedback loop, you’re creating a way to more accurately spot your errors and identify potential improvements to your learning routine. One study conducted at Brunel University, UK explains:

“A feedback loop [provides]…the necessary information for adaptive measures to achieve the desired levels of teaching and learning objectives.”

Acquiring the necessary information to get to the desired objective is precisely what rapid skill acquisition is about. It’s about finding out exactly what you need to change to reach your goal more quickly.

Feedback loop

For some skills, you’ll be able to track results and measurements yourself. One easy option is to collect progress data using Google Forms

Track Key Areas of Your Life In 1-Minute with Google Forms

Track Key Areas of Your Life In 1-Minute with Google Forms

It is amazing what you can learn about yourself when you take the time to pay attention to your daily habits and behaviors. Use the versatile Google Forms to track your progress with important goals.
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to provide you with feedback. You can then use this data to adjust your future approach.

For other skills, you might need feedback from elsewhere: a mastermind group

How A Mastermind Group Can Help You Achieve More Goals

How A Mastermind Group Can Help You Achieve More Goals

The term ‘mastermind group’ is being thrown around a lot in the personal development sphere these days, but what exactly are they, do they work, and how could you set up your own group?
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, or critiquing groups such as these photography critiquing groups

8 Places to Get Feedback on Your Photos

8 Places to Get Feedback on Your Photos

One of the best ways to improve your photography skills is to gather genuine feedback from people who know what they’re talking about. These eight sites are where you can do just that.
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, for example.

There are similar communities and forums for virtually anything you want to study. The experts in each of these offer an invaluable feedback loop to help you keep improving.

2. Deliberate Practice

To go back to Anders Ericsson, much of his research has been focused on Deliberate Practice

Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice

Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice

It’s all too easy to feel crestfallen when you’re arduously trying to improve a certain skill. Use the power of “deliberate practice” to get you over those infuriating plateaus.
Read More

. The following video explains it well.

Deliberate Practice is seen by some as one of the most efficient ways to learn. That is, to focus very deliberately on the narrow sub-skills needed to make up an overall skill.

Based on his research on Deliberate Practice, Ericsson writes:

“The effects of mere experience [of performing a skill] differ greatly from those of Deliberate Practice, where individuals concentrate on actively trying to go beyond their current abilities.”

Unsurprisingly, Deliberate Practice is hard. Ericsson found that elite athletes, writers, and musicians could only sustain the concentration needed for Deliberate Practice for relatively short periods of time. Their concentration on very specific skills, and sub-skills, however, ensured they continued to improve and perform at the top of their game.

3. Become a Teacher

The idea of learning through teaching isn’t new. But after a certain amount of research, the National Training Laboratories felt confident enough to release The Learning Pyramid. This is a simple diagram showing the rough retention rates to be expected through various forms of teaching. The pyramid has its opponents, but for many, it remains a reliable guideline.

The Learning Pyramid

As you can see, passive learning approaches offer relatively low levels of retention. Unfortunately, this is what we often rely on when picking up a new skill, especially as adults.

Participatory methods, however, offer much more promise. “Group Discussions” (50% retention), as mentioned previously, could be fostered through mastermind groups or online critiques. “Practice by Doing” (75% retention) is where Deliberate Practice comes in. But with “Teaching Others” reportedly offering a 90% retention rate, we cannot ignore this strategy.

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” –Einstein

Whether you’re already proficient, or a complete novice here isn’t important. If you’re an expert looking to improve, you have a lot to teach. If you’re a novice, you can document and explain what you’re learning to others.

Deciding to become a teacher means thoroughly understanding a very specific area of study before being able pass on that knowledge others. This gives you the motivation and responsibility to really get to grips with a topic.

If you’re at an advanced level, you could use sites like Private Tutoring At Home to find tutoring gigs. If you wanted something with less responsibility, you could answer relevant questions on Quora, Reddit, or a relevant online forum.

Or if you want to keep things simple, start a WordPress blog

Set Up Your Blog With WordPress: The Ultimate Guide

Set Up Your Blog With WordPress: The Ultimate Guide

Want to start your own blog but don’t know how? Look to WordPress, the most powerful blogging platform available today.
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to share your findings, methods, and results. If you don’t want to set up a blog, you can publish directly to Medium, or even start a YouTube channel

Before Starting a YouTube Channel, Consider These Success Factors

Before Starting a YouTube Channel, Consider These Success Factors

Starting a successful YouTube channel isn’t easy, but if you keep these tips in mind, you’ll be ahead of the curve!
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to share what you’re learning

How Many Hours Does It Really Take?

As explained, Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule is based on very unstable foundations. Luckily for us, the alternative is far more preferable.

By paying close attention to how you structure your practice time,

How to Learn Any Skill with Your Own Solid Training Plan

How to Learn Any Skill with Your Own Solid Training Plan

How will you achieve your goals? Dreaming and planning are just the start. You need the right mix of technological and psychological tools to carry out your self-training program.
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introducing feedback loops, deliberate practice, and an aspect of teaching into your learning methods, you can become highly proficient at most skills in far less time than you might otherwise think.

Explore more about: Education Technology, Motivation, Study Tips.

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Master Information Architecture by Designing with Data

In today’s digital era, having an impactful and compelling website is a critical component for any business or organization. A useful site that connects with your audience instills trust, screams authority, and drives action, can mean the difference between remaining relevant and competitive or falling silently to the wayside.

Despite the critical importance of websites in today’s competitive landscape, many web designers find their creations falling short on the performance matrix, under-delivering on KPIs and leaving those in charge scratching their heads for an answer.

Simply put, sometimes innovative layouts and stunning visuals aren’t enough. Lack of data in the design process can create a disconnect between what “works” and what looks or feels appealing.

The marriage of data and design makes for a compelling approach to data-driven design processes and can act as a guiding force for strategizing and implementing site architecture and design elements that not only look great but meet or exceed performance expectations.


Market Research – Where it all Begins

In life, as in business (and web design), having a clear direction and goal in mind from the outset will make for a predictable journey to that end.

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable

~ Seneca

Market research is all about understanding your audience, analyzing the competition and competitive landscape, and looking introspectively inward to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Market Demands

Your “market” represents the gameboard, along with all of its components and pieces upon which your design strategy executes. As it relates to market demands, what elements are vital, required or expected of your design and website?


  • Visible accreditations or licensure;
  • Prominent reviews and ratings;
  • Specific contact or support channels;
  • Information such as guides or training materials;
  • Product/service visuals or demonstrations;
  • Transparent pricing.

Market demands vary and will be particular to your specific industry, geographic location, and other factors.

Competition / Competitive Landscape

You know what they say: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. While you don’t need to become best friends with the competition, monitoring their activities, strategies, updates, offerings and other prerogatives can provide you with insightful and useful information.

Competitive data can be used to leverage the time, resources and hard work of other brands to identify those activities or strategies that either perform well or fail in the market.

By doing so, you can learn from costly mistakes, while benefiting from winning concepts already battle-tested in the market and proven to either work.

Further, understanding the competitive landscape in its totality will help you understand what you’re up against, and can help you formulate ways to uniquely position your design in the market such that it stands out among the sea of competitors vying for the same business.

Target Audience / Customer Avatar

Without a deep understanding of your target audience, any web designer is prone to missing the mark badly, failing to connect with, engage, inspire action, and meet the needs of their visitors.

Considerations with regards to your audience should include both demographic and user behavior data.

Demographic Data to Consider:

  • Gender
  • Age brackets
  • Income
  • Geographic locations
  • Family size
  • And other relevant data
  • Behavioral Data to Consider:
  • Needs and wants
  • Pain points or complaints
  • Issues/problems
  • Desired solutions
  • Likes and preferences
  • Purchase habits
  • And more…

The specific types of behavioral and demographic data that will be most useful and relevant to your design will be mostly dependent on your brand, vertical/niche, offerings, and other particulars.

Product / Solutions Audit

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees as it were. Taking a step back and assessing your product/solutions and other offers can provide perspective on necessary design elements, positioning, and framing that can help turn a non-performing offer into a critical source of revenue.

Utilizing information uncovered in the previous steps, cross-reference your offers and take a hard look at whether or not your products or services meet market and user demands, needs and want.

In what way do your offers stand out (or in what ways can you make them stand out) from those offered by the competition. Utilize this data to formulation unique positioning and strategic approaches to incorporate your offers’ USP or value proposition.


Keyword Research

Keyword research is a vital component of the design process, and will largely dictate how information is architected, organized, presented and delivered on the site.

Approach keyword research from a bottom-up or top-down funnel approach.

Necessary components of keyword research include:

  • Keyword competition;
  • Keyword intent (buyer vs. research vs. informational, etc.);
  • Stage of funnel each keyword targets;
  • Organization of content for search engines and user experience;
  • Link modeling for internal link and ranking strategies.

Types of Content May Include:

  • Sales/landing pages;
  • Service/product pages;
  • Resources, guides, tutorials;
  • Informational and supportive blog posts or articles;
  • Information Architecture.

Information architecture is essential for user experience, search engine optimization, and conversion rate optimization. Utilizing data from the previous market and keyword research phases you can begin to optimally architect information in a way that is conducive to better performance.

Elements to Incorporate into your Design Architecture

Site Structure: Determined by both market and keyword research, your site’s structure can be first mapped out by using an organizational chart for ease of visualization.

URL Mapping: This step, while mostly administrative and somewhat tedious, involves the creation of each URL structure optimized for both readability by users and optimized for search engines to understand. Once created, assign designated keywords to their respective URLs.

Page Flows: An understanding of user behavior and the ideal buyer journey should also shape how information is structured and organized, helping both users and search engines to “flow” seamlessly through information in a way that answers their questions and solves their problems with the least amount of “friction.”

Value Propositions: An understanding of the problems and pain points facing your target audience will enable you to architect, draft and present unique value propositions tailored to each individualized problem or issue.

Topic Clustering: Once you’ve mapped out your keywords, pages, and content, group or “cluster” those topics that are semantically relevant to each other. Clustering your content can help with search engine categorization and relevancy metrics.

Interlinking: Once mapped out with pages and content clustered, seek out opportunities to link between related pages.


Closing Thoughts

Tailoring design to user needs and expectations is never far from any designer’s thought process, yet knowing exactly which strategies or tactics have the best chance of performing well is often unclear. By utilizing a data-driven decision-making process, web designers can leverage information in a way that helps them formulate a plan tailor-made to perform and exceed expectations. Designs using data versus personal opinion, experience improved levels of engagement, higher conversions, enhanced user experience and overall performance.

As a professional web designer, you have a responsibility to both the users, and to the organization for which you are working, to use and implement all available tools to deliver the best end product possible. Data is one of those tools and one in which there is an excellent potential for success when used correctly.


Featured image via Unsplash

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Master SQL With This $39 Training Bundle

Data begets success, which is why organizations gather so much of it. Once it’s collected, however, they need skilled database administrators to deal with it all. Want a future-friendly career? Then train to become one of these professionals with The Complete SQL Certification Bundle, now just $39.

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It’s the convenient, fast, and virtually risk-free way to train for a career that could pay huge dividends. Save over 90% off the regular value of The Complete SQL Certification Bundle and pay only $39 for a limited time.

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