Expertise #1 | Not Quite 10,000 Hours

Thoughts + Opinion

The most pervasive narrative that paves the road to expertise is to get our 10,000 hours in. An idea made popular by author Malcom Gladwell in Outliers. The idea being that if you spend 10,000 hours on something specific, you can become a true expert and therefore implicitly become successful (if not outright, then greatly improve your odds).

Then Is that the silver bullet? Albeit one with a very elongated flight path? Not entirely.

On the path to knocking out the approximately 417 full days of work we have in front of us (or about nine years if we average three hours per day), we have to adjust our approach to align for the best outcome. The 10,000 hour rule is a much better soundbite than it is an equation; a better philosophy than it is a prescription.

It’s not simply choosing a focus that matters, but the work we do in service of that focus (goal) which really changes the outcome and impacts our growth toward expertise. This is often emphasized with the saying “are you gaining a new year of experience each year in your career, or repeating the first year for twenty years.”

Let’s take more extreme (and hopefully fictitious) example with woodworking. Woodworking is that sexy kind of hobby that everybody wishes they were good at. We can all picture something that has caught our eye; a gorgeous reclaimed timber coffee table or maybe even think back to the altar Pam’s ex-boyfriend made in Meet The Parents. We see feats of mastery and beauty, and for a split second we frustratingly realize we can’t do anything near that, so we want only one thing:

But only for a split second, we’re not monsters. Moving past that, let’s get back to our blossoming woodworking hobby. We have all the stuff setup in our garage and we set out to make a chair. We make the chair. Being our first go around, this chair is likely needling our asses with splinters and looks like something left behind in a Colorado wildfire. Hey, no problem. It’s the first attempt, I’m just happy we made the damn thing. Now what if we just keep remaking that same chair? We don’t do the work of learning new techniques, changing the type of wood we use, redesigning the structure, or really any of the much harder work that comes with trying to improve. Well then, guess what? 10,000 hours later of shit like that, of just trying to rehash an early victory with no stretch goals or new input, and we’re not going to be Ron Swanson anytime soon. We’ll just be the disappointed owners of an army of gimp chairs. 

This is precisely what psychologist Anders Ericsson discusses in his research where he focuses on the concept of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice focuses on the type of practice any given person engages in for their work, in particular for those that become ‘experts’. While Ericsson did focus on the concept of becoming an expert and introduces his research by stating “Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.”, he specifies that it is the type of practice that makes the most significant difference, and the period of time varies greatly by the individual. Engaging in deliberate practice, consistently, is the most distinct separator for people who go on to become experts in their field.

Assuming we are genuine with ourselves and have some semblance of focus and consistency, we need a little more than perfect attendance to really thrive at what we’re doing. Challenges like stretch goals, more creative and strenuous learning activities (some writers hand transcribe the work of talented authors to reinforce quality writing, for instance), and seeking feedback are all core activities to accelerate the growth process. They all embody deliberate practice. 10,000 hours of redundant behavior can only get us so far (re woodworking gimp chairs).  

While the 10,000 hour concept creates an attractive soundbite to stick in our heads as a reference, it shouldn’t be treated as dogma. On this one, the individual concepts may be more valuable than the sum:

  • Working to become an expert in anything is incredibly challenging; we should focus on very few things at a time in the pursuit of expertise
  • This sort of experience takes a lot of time of effort; it may even take more than 10,000 hours for some of us 
  • The quality of effort (deliberate practice) eventually matters far more than simply time spent

So, let’s stop re-making some crazy chair in our basements or thinking that drunk painting events are going to push us into the next echelon. It’s cliché to say, but once we get started and get our bearings, if it’s something we really want, the real work is only beginning. Eventually merely showing up is not enough.  

with Love/Paranoia

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