The 10,000-Hour Rule and Climbing

In his novel entitled Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell gives a detailed discussion of the enumerable variables that lead one to success. One chapter in particular discusses the “10,000-hour rule,” a fairly well known rule, which suggests that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something in order to master it. Some of the examples Gladwell provides include master pianists, computer programmers, and hockey players. When reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but think of how one might apply this rule to climbing.


A quick look at their Wikipedia pages will show that master climbers like Daniel Woods, Chris Sharma, and Ashima Shiraishi made some of their first extremely hard ascents right around the 10,000 hour mark (Gladwell indicates that people typically reach this mark after about 10 years). Sharma sent Biographie, the world’s first 5.15a, in 2001, and he started climbing in 1993. Just under ten years, it seems plausible that Sharma sent this just after reaching 10,000 hours or, in any case, when he was very close to reaching 10,000 hours. This year, Ashima became the first female to send V15 after having climbed for about nine years—again, presumably very close to the 10,000 hour mark. So clearly, this rule is applicable to the climbing world. What, then, are the implications of this rule for us non-elites?

To provide an extension of Gladwell’s rule: the more hours one climbs, the closer to mastery she will be. This rule serves as an explanation for the success of many climbers. Climbers who manage to send their first V10s after the age of 40 have probably clocked in around 10,000 hours of climbing by that age. Furthermore, when reading through the bios of my many fellow Evolv athletes, I noticed phrases like “getting hooked” or “getting addicted” or “falling in love” continually used to describe the athlete’s relationship with climbing. These climbers experienced an insatiable need to climb, so they clocked in hours upon hours until eventually, they were strong enough to get Evolv’s attention. Speaking anecdotally, I fell in love with climbing about four years ago. I went to my local climbing gym every single day after school, usually until 8 or 9 at night. I climbed in every moment of my free time. Doing the math, I was probably climbing between 20 and 25 hours a week. I progressed very quickly. I had a friend who started about a month before myself, yet he progressed even more quickly than myself. Any time I came to the gym, he was there, and he always left after me. We can attribute his quicker progression to a higher number of hours climbed. When I left for college, and climbed considerably less per week, this guy continued to progress, presumably climbing his usual 20-25 hours per week, resulting in his far surpassing my climbing capabilities. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, I now know that my aforementioned extension of the 10,000-hour rule can be to blame for the strength disparity between my friend and myself.

It is important to note the many variables that can facilitate one’s following of the 10,000-hour rule. Professional athletes, for example, have the free time to climb so often because it is their profession. They often come from middle- or high-income families, who can afford gym memberships or frequent outdoor trips, and the parents do not receive low wages that would require them to work 70 hours per week. Members of climbing teams likely clock in more hours than people who climb recreationally, as they are required by their coach to attend practices and climb a certain number of hours each week. People with especially weak joints, or people who are heavily injury-prone, will not be able to climb as many hours per week as others, so they might reach the 10,000 hour mark after 20 years instead of 10. This brings me to another point: climbing with the frequency of 20 hours per week can be extremely dangerous and taxing on the body. If you’re ever feeling burnt out or your joints are becoming excessively sore, you should probably not be climbing that often.

For the weekend warriors: if you do not have the free time to climb 20 hours per week, then you will have to work much harder with the time that you have. Get on a training program. Try hard. Climb smart and climb hard and you just might disprove the 10,000-hour rule. Perhaps you can still become an outlier.

-Corey Lee