“Choose to struggle with something – we live in a culture of the quick and easy and it has made us impatient and lazy.” – Jake Weidmann, One of only 12 Master Penmen in the world
Becoming an expert at anything takes just a tad more effort than typing those six letters into your Twitter profile—though a lot of people try to get away with it.
Expertise is elusive. Too often people get stuck in the doldrums of partial expert somewhere between “holy crap this is too difficult” and “just one more episode…”. Becoming an expert at anything takes patience and focus, but those traits are continually thrown under the bus in search of instant gratification. There is a silver lining to the increasing acceptance of half-assed effort: there is plenty of room at the top for those who are willing to put in the work.
Experts in Practice
I live for the knowledge I can find between the covers of a book. I could go on for days about how books can pave your path to expertise, but I’ll save that for another time. A few years ago I cracked open my first Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers. In the book, Gladwell dives into all kinds of research and elaborates on a myriad of stories to show why some people become extraordinary. Arguably one of the most popular ideas from his book is the concept of how much time someone needs to spend devoted to their work to become an expert.
In 1973, Herbert A. Simon and William G. Chase analyzed the intensely strategic game of chess in a paper titled, Skill in Chess. The purpose of their research was to try and understand exactly what it took to become an expert (an actual level of expertise in the field of chess), a master and a grandmaster—grandmaster being the highest possible ranking.
What they found was actually pretty cool.
“There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person has reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions.”
These findings led to the creation of an entire field of study within psychology. One of the spin-off studies came from psychologist John Hayes. He found that in a study of 76 classical composers, 73 of them didn’t write their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years.
Gladwell drew from both of these studies and brought to light some other examples that fit in with this 10,000 hour rule (estimating 1,000 hours a year.) For example, if you didn’t grow up under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Beatles. Though they established themselves as one of the greatest rock bands of all time, they were a pretty subpar band when they started. What eventually set them apart from other bands was a gig they landed as a house band in a strip club. Not exactly what you would imagine as the most ideal environment for becoming great. In just over a year and a half during their residency, they played together 270 nights. In 1964 when The Beatles really started to gain some traction with their music, they had performed live roughly 1200 times. Just try to fathom that number for a second. Most bands never perform 1200 times in a lifetime. By the time they put out their best work, they had easily surpassed their 10,000 hours.
The Language of Expertise
Gladwell also talks about experts in computer programming, one of those being Bill Joy. If you don’t know, Joy’s contributions to the world of computers is right up there with Bill Gates. In the 70’s, Joy wrote vi, one of the first screen-based text editors, which is astonishingly still used today. His company, Sun Microsystems, also wrote the programming language, Java. I don’t know much about computers, but I know enough to know that that’s pretty remarkable.
But reading through Joy’s story, one particular instance really caught my interest. When Joy was taking his oral exams for his PhD, he confounded his examiners with an elaborate algorithm that he just made up on the spot. How could he have done that? Complex algorithms shouldn’t just appear out of thin air.
In the Skill in Chess paper, Simon and Chase found that proficiency in Chess is strangely similar to proficiency in language.
As the two began to try and understand the possibilities of moves in a single game, they came to the conclusion that a master knows roughly 50,000 different patterns. From that number, they drew another fascinating conclusion: the time a master needs to spend perfecting his or her chess game is comparable to the time a highly literate person (someone knowing 50,000+ words) must spend reading.
For the most elite chess players, the moves of the game become like words and sentences of an entirely new language. Eventually a player can become so expert at the game that they begin to recognize a good strategic move in mere seconds.
When someone asks you a question in a conversation, you can quickly pull words and phrases together to form a sentence without even really thinking about the complex process of identifying words, processing their meaning, coming up with a response, and then voicing that response.
You have spent thousands of hours storing thousands of combinations and rules in your brain to be used for communication. Eventually, you reached a level where those processes run automatically. When Bill Joy was presented with a question in a language he knew as second nature, his years of practice and study took over and he came up with an algorithm that, as one of the examiners stated, was like “Jesus confounding his elders.”
The Problem with “Magic Numbers”
Since so many things seem to match up with this 10,000 hour rule, it’s easy for people to shoot for that number like it’s a magic number for obtaining expertise. As with every one-size-fits-all theory, the 10,000 hour rule has been the subject of some intense criticism.
Though Gladwell didn’t actually come up with the idea, he took it and popularized it. If you search Ask Jeeves (or whatever search engine you prefer) for “Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule,” you’ll find pages of articles refuting the idea.
And you know what? A lot of the differing opinions are right. However, most of them appear relevant on the outside but are actually comparing apples to oranges. And Gladwell has made many of his own counter arguments to that point.
Gladwell clarifies in a New Yorker article that not anyone can practice anything for 10,000 hours and become a world-class expert. There has to be some level of innate talent present. For example, Gladwell refers to a South African researcher who tested over ten thousand boys and never saw a slow boy became fast.
“Achievement is talent plus preparation.” – Gladwell
If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. But on the flip side, Gladwell acknowledges the story of a high jumper, Donald Thomas, who became world class after only a few months. So there are definitely instances where the 10,000 hour rule doesn’t apply.
To further that point, David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, found that some sports like skeleton, darts or wrestling don’t follow the 10,000 hour rule. The argument in these cases is that these activities are simple (compared to chess or computer programming) and don’t require the same depth of complex knowledge to perfect.
“Cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed.” – Gladwell
Your Mom Was Wrong
So what’s the take away from all this? Contrary to what your mom tells you, you probably can’t be an expert at anything you want—even if you give it your all. At the very least, you need to have some level of innate talent in the skill you wish to master.
But what this does mean is that you can be an expert at something! (That is, if you’re willing to put in a ridiculous amount of work) No one is talentless. You may just have to work harder at finding what you are talented at, but I promise it’s in there. Don’t give up no matter how many times you find yourself thinking, “Holy crap this is too difficult!”- push through the challenge.
Struggle for something worthwhile. Become an expert. Change the world.