Does the 10,000-hour rule work for product designers?

Does the 10,000-hour rule work for product designers?
Photo by Brett Jordan

What does it take to become an expert in a given field? Ten thousand hours of intensive practice. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule in his book "Outliers."

Even though this rule is catchy and easy to remember, it can be hard to apply it in real life. Especially for product designers. Let's explore the top 4 factors that can help you.

Strong motivation

Not only the number of hours you spend doing something but whether you're willing to do it in the first place is important. Product design is not art, it's a craft, and it's impossible to master this discipline without strong motivation.

Before you start investing your time in learning this discipline, you should ask yourself a few simple questions:

"Is it my path? Is design something that I really want to do?"

"Will I feel good designing new products?"

"Will I feel good designing new products?" is a critical question. Emotions play a crucial role in learning, and when you don’t love what you do, you never become an expert or master performer.

Swiss watch face design. Image by Gleb Kuznetsov✈

Hard work

"The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it," says Malcolm Gladwell. But what exactly does "work hard" really mean? Does it mean that if I invest 10,000 hours in product design tasks, I will ultimately become the best of the best? Not necessary. You can practice for thousands of hours and still not be an average performer. For example, if you play chess for 10,000 hours, it doesn't mean that you can beat Garry Kasparov in this game.

So, what exactly does working hard really mean? Working hard means constantly increasing the complexity of challenges you can solve. Our brain will prevent us from doing that since it's programmed to keep us in a stress-free comfort zone. It will tell us, "C'mon, you are already working too hard. It's time to relax." And if you aren’t familiar with that trap, you might end up focussing on completing routine tasks. Unfortunately, it will give you a false sense of progress.

Mechanical repetition won't help you achieve significant results. Ten thousand hours of routine work where you reuse the same design patterns, again and again, won't help you become the top designer. If you want to become an expert in product design, you should be willing to solve different types of problems—be involved in creating various types of products, especially innovative ones.

Focuses not only on the quantity of time practicing but also on the quality of the practice. Intentionally push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Curiosity

Product designers always learn new skills. And it's much easier to do that when you are naturally curious. Good product designers are always curious about design and tech and about the world around them. They constantly ask questions like

"How does it work?"

"Why does it look this way?"

"What if we design this object in this way?"

And this way of thinking helps them collect interesting insights about the world that they later use in their work.

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Voice visual design for brand CGI. Image by Gleb Kuznetsov✈

Having a teacher/mentor

Even when you practice for 10,000 hours and constantly increase the complexity of your challenges, you still can be outplayed by someone who practiced less but has a teacher. Teachers can help you prioritize your efforts, which makes your learning process more focused.

Having a mentor is extremely important for product designers, especially when they make their first steps in the industry. A mentor can guide you through and explain how to deal with some challenges.

So, does the 10,000-hour rule for product designers?

Yes and no. As you can see, reaching mastery in a product design field depends on several factors. The rule acts as a North Star for anyone who makes their first step in the field. At the same time, it's important to remember that time is a precious resource, and we should invest it wisely. Invest time in what you genuinely love, and you will be grateful to yourself for doing what you want to do.