10,000 hours to mastery?

For some time I've been a bit fascinated by the 10,000-hours theory. That is, if we practice an activity, such as ballet for 10,000 hours, we will master our discipline, to become elite performers. The theory evolved from a study done by Anders Ericsson, and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his mega successful book, Outliers. The theory argues that elite performers are made, not born - and that it's practice, not genetics, which leads to elite performance.

If you can find  10,000 hours of time in your life, you have the potential to reinvent yourself and become a novelist, actuary, photo-journalist, botanist, flautist or brain surgeon. If an aged body inhibits your ability to become world class, there's still time to master modest, but significant achievements such as learning to be an en pointe ballerina, or crack 2m at the high jump.

What does 10,000 hours mean?

10,000 hours
=
1,250 x 8-hour days
=
250 x 40-hour weeks
=
5.2 years, incl 4 weeks annual leave 

My fascination with the theory hasn't translated into action because, despite some contemplation, I can't think of anything that I want to achieve that badly! 5 years deep commitment doesn't sound like much, but reflects 10% of my life to date. What singular activity would I ever want to dedicate my life to do for 8-hours a day, week on week, year on year, that I'd happily do to the exclusion of pretty much anything else?

However, a post by Chris Guillebeau got me curious. Chris got interested in an article he read about Dan McLaughlin in Southwest Magazine. At the age of 30, Dan decided to step away from his old life, and dedicate his immediate future to becoming a professional golfer. To achieve his goal, Dan was going to apply (and monitor) the principals of the 10,000-hours theory.

For much of his early life, Dan had a stop-start approach to his education and career. He was inspired by the possibilities of the 10,000-practice concept, and its vision for what could be achieved. 

Chris writes: 

... it’s fun to learn new things. In the early days of learning something, you can learn so much, so fast. 

On Dan's progress, Chris Guillebeau observes: 

The more he’s improved, the harder it’s gotten to get better. Going from bad to good is way easier than going from good to great. And going from great to world-class? That’s rare territory. The line is thin, but the gap is wide.

When Dan started his quest at 30, there was lots of support for his endeavours, and quick success in his progress. However, 5 years on, public support has moved on, relationships have been sacrificed and, as the Southwest article observed, its possible Dan has 'reached a point where he is limiting his own possibilities'

For me, however, Dan's quest remains a wonder. I am in awe of people who discipline themselves, often pushing against a tide, to achieve a magnificent vision they've set for themselves. For this reason, I'll continue to follow his journey, which he's capturing on The Dan Plan.

If we park the commitment of what the 10,000 hours entails, I can think of many, many people who have gone onto second (and third careers) after pursuing a new skill set with single minded determination. I'm thinking their success is not simply due to their efforts, but because they were pursuing a vocational dream, built around their interests or values.

You may have read interviews I did with Liz Steel, who found a new life force when she took up  watercolour illustration; Judy Fitzgerald who transitioned into coaching (and recognised as 2015 coach of the year) and Dimi Napoli who combined her knowledge of financial services with her deep interest in social media to build a successful consulting business.

Then there's (former) Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, author and amateur pianist, Alan Rusbridger, who set himself the challenge to learn to play a challenging concerto within a year. The challenge was ratcheted right up when the year of his learning coincided with events 'memorable in the history of English journalism'. During Rusbridger's editorship in 2010, the Wikileaks story and the 'News of the World' scandal broke; The Guardian playing a central role in breaking both stories. Despite working up to 16-hour days, Rusbridger was still able to focus on his musicianship and mastered his concerto challenge.

These examples are of people who honoured the best they expected of themselves to follow their vocation and interests. Undoubtedly there were sacrifices, along with days and weeks of doubt, but they stayed the course with the result that they have achieved great things for themselves, and probably more importantly the communities they work in.

Currently I work with a group of employees whose employer is giving the opportunity to  pursue any education they want, provided it supports their future career goals. It's not uncommon for the employees to identify the education they want, but incredibly challenging to identify their next career. My chief role for these people is to encourage them to step back and help them focus on their 3-5 year plans, then look at the most meaningful study (and experience) they can pursue to support their career goal. 

This commitment has parallels with the 10,000-hours theory, insomuch as mastery takes time and deliberate practice. Where I think there is divergence is that the players I've referenced aren't pursuing random activities - they're making commitments that align to values and vocation, that are integrated, or perhaps tethered, to their broader being.

As we get older, we are more inclined to develop deep knowledge and gain meaningful experience when the effort contributes to pathways that lead to a destination which has purpose and meaning for us. 


Image by Alex Jones via Unsplash