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Crazy Old Virals (3) - Skills proficiency & learning

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

Myth 1: 70:20:10 model provides an effective framework for organizational learning and development

Fact: 70:20:10 model is based on insufficient and manipulated data.

One of the most influential myths in learning is the 70:20:10 model that offers a simple rule: 70% of learning is acquired through doing (on-the-job training), 20% from people (discussions) and 10% through formal learning (courses, books). In fact, chances, are your organization has it in place as business and HR leaders alike use it as a starting model for any development and learning program, attracted by its simplicity and cost implications.

The origins of this myth are not certain but it seems that it is based on a survey of 191 executives that were asked to indicate three events that made a difference to their careers and the lessons they learned from them. The survey was first published in 1988 (1) and in 1996 the responses to this survey were reinterpreted, clustered and presented in an eye-catching multiple-of-ten format (1a).

With this track record, it's easy to debate the 70:20:10 rule and many researchers have done it (2, 2a., 2b). Leaving aside the reinterpretation of results, 191 is too low to be of statistical relevance when applied worldwide, especially when the "executives" (therefore leadership learning and development) are extrapolated to the entire workforce (technical and functional learning).

While learning does indeed happen through multiple channels, the 70:20:10 is only an appealing "sirens' song" (2) which, unfortunately, hides from the organization what is being informally learned (might be the opposite of what is of strategic interest) and how effective that learning is.

Myth: 2 One needs 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill

Fact: Practice is important in developing a skill but it does not explain all the variation between average and proficiency

The "10,000 Hour Rule" suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill and it was introduced in 1993 in a study by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues (3), which found that elite performers, such as musicians and athletes, had practiced for an average of 10,000 hours before achieving mastery in their field. The study became viral and it was popularized by multiple authors:

- Malcolm Gladwell presented the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill in his book "Outliers" (3a),

- Daniel Coyle included it in "The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown" (3b),

- Geoff Colvin cited in "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else" (3c).

While both Ericsson and Gladwell never said (4) that anyone can master a skill only if they practice 10,000 hours the misinterpretation made its way into the mainstream. Then multiple studies tried to "replicate" the initial one (I use "" because, in fact, these studies tested the misunderstood hypothesis) and failed to get those results and a series of analyses debunked this myth (4a, 4b, 4c, 4d).

Check pages 8 to 24 of North's analysis for a comprehensive list of features, claims and challenges related to acquiring the expert level in a skill (4a) and Ericsson's book if interested in what the initial study claims were and his full view on mastering skills (5).

Myth 3: 5-hour rule - One can master a skill if practicing five hours every week

Fact: Practice is important to achieving mastery but it's more to it than the amount of invested time

The "5-hour rule" is a concept popularized by entrepreneur and author Michael Simmons (6) that suggests that successful people dedicate at least 5 hours per week to deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a particular skill. The idea behind the rule, which is valuable and worthy of consideration, is that consistent and focused practice over time is key to achieving mastery and that constant learning is mandatory for success and maintaining relevance. Similar to the previous one, the 5-hour rule was misinterpreted into "learn/practice for five hours a week and you'll be the next Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc.". While research has also shown that the amount of time spent practicing is a strong predictor of skill level (6a), there is no golden rule as the amount of time required to achieve mastery in a particular skill can vary greatly depending on the skill, the individual, and the context. Additionally, the quality of the practice is more important than the quantity of practice. Spending 5 hours a week on a skill that you are not ready for or don’t enjoy is not as effective as spending 1 hour a week on a skill that you are passionate about and are ready to learn. It's important to remember that while the 5-hour rule can serve as a useful reminder to make time for deliberate practice, the amount of time required to achieve mastery will vary depending on the skill, the individual, and the context.

Deliberate practice, as defined by Ericsson, has a series of features that clearly differentiates it from naive practice (4):

Myth 4: "Learning Styles" - people have specific preferred ways of learning, such as visual, auditory, tactile, or kinesthetic. If learning through their preferred style, they learn better, faster, etc.

Fact: We don't know if this is true.

The high-quality scientific evidence that adequately validates a link between the preferred learning styles and the corresponding teaching style is absent for now (7).

So far research has shown that there is little evidence to support the idea that matching a teaching method to a specific learning style leads to better learning outcomes:

- A 2015 (7a) study could not provide any evidence in favor of the hypothesis that learners benefit from instructions tailored to their learning style.

- Another study (7b) got similar results.

Myth 5: The Miller's Law / The Magical number 7: One can only keep 7 items in their working memory at a time.

Fact: There's no magical number.

The "Magical Number 7" or "Miller's Law" is a theory that suggests that people can only hold 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory at a time. It impacted how the U.S. (but only) phone numbers were designed, what the oral presentation rules included (no more than seven topics/ideas), how long number sequences are in the intelligence tests looking at memory, etc.

This concept was first introduced by George Miller in 1956 in a paper (8) that proposed that the number of items that people can hold in their working memory is limited by the capacity of the "magical number 7", without sufficient scientific proof and in a humorous tone.

Now we know that memory capacity varies with the individual, the type of information that is to be memorized, its relatability to the individual, and that it can be trained and improved over time.

The "magical number 7" has been widely cited in the field of cognitive psychology as an explanation for why people have difficulty remembering long lists of items or performing certain types of mental tasks (cca 20,000 citations) but no related research had been performed for almost four decades. Nelson Cowan has a great analysis (8a) which I recommend. He is also the one who found the magical number 4 (8b).

George Miller himself was quite surprised by the traction his 1956 article got. In an autobiographical essay (8c) he explained how he came up with the magical number 7:

He was asked to give an hour-long presentation when he did not feel that he had a research topic developed enough to take up that time period. But he had some research on immediate memory and on absolute judgment. Nevertheless, he could not address two separate topics and looked for a common theme between them. He did not find any initially but, at one point, he discovered that they shared the number seven in terms of research participants' limits in performance. So he linked the themes through the number 7, to which he added "plus or minus" intending to convey the humorous notion that a magical number could have a margin of error. An amazing way for a scientific legend to be born, isn't it?


(1) Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Ann Morrison: "Lessons of Experience. How Successful Executives Develop on the Job" (The Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 1988)

(1a) Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger: "Career Architect Development Planner" (Lominger Press, 1996).

(2) Harding, R., (2022). Debate: The 70:20:10 ‘rule’ in learning and development—The mistake of listening to sirens and how to safely navigate around them, Public Money & Management,42:1,6-7,

(2a) Clardy, A. (2018). 70-20-10 and the Dominance of Informal Learning: A Fact in Search of Evidence. Human Resource Development Review.

(2b) Jonson, S., Blackman, D., Buick, F. (2018). "The 70:20:10 framework and the transfer of learning", Human Resource Development Quarterly,

(3) Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.

(3a) Malcolm Gladwell: "Outliers" (Back Bay Books, 2011)

(3b) Daniel Coyle: "The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown" (Cornerstone Digital, 2010)

(3c) Geoff Colvin: "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else" (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011)

(4) Harwell, K., Southwick, D. (2021). Beyond 10,000 Hours: Addressing Misconceptions of the Expert Performance Approach. Journal of Expertise 2021. Vol. 4(2), ISSN 2573-2773

(4b) Macnamara, B., Maitra, M. (2019). "The role of deliberate practice in expert performance: revisiting Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer (1993)",

(4c) Macnamara, B. N., Moreau, D., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2016). The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

(5) Anders Ericsson: "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise" (Mariner Books, 2016)

(6a) Hambrick, D. Z., Macnamara, B. N., & Oswald, F. L. (2020). Is the Deliberate Practice View Defensible? A Review of Evidence and Discussion of Issues. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

(7) Yankulov, K., & Lu, R. R.(2017).On the Possibility of Preferred Performance Styles and Their Link to Learning Styles.Frontiers in Education, 2.

(7a) Rogowski, B., Calhoun, B., and Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: effects on comprehension. J. Educ. Psychol. 107, 64–78.

(7b) Yankulov, K. (2014). More than spelling and grammar: students who prefer to write outperform students who prefer to present. Am. J. Educ. Res. 2, 1029–1035.

(8) Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97.

(8a) Cowan, N. (2015). George Miller’s Magical Number of Immediate Memory in Retrospect: Observations on the Faltering Progression of Science. Psychological review, 122(3), 536.

(8b) Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,24(1), 87-114.

(8c) Miller, G.A.. (1989). George A. Miller. A history of psychology in autobiography. 8. 391-418.


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