Wednesday, December 10, 2008

10,000 Hours to Mastery

"If People knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all." --Michelangelo

I've always believed two things regarding most of what we would call skills: 1.) that there is such a thing as innate talent (and Michelangelo had loads of it), and 2.) that hard work will ultimately trump natural ability, which Mike also says was necessary for the full expression of his genius.

I once had a painter tell me, back when I was in school, that good brush-handling in painting is simply a matter of getting all the bad lines out first. As if your brushes are full of "bad" paint that makes horrible strokes, and the more you use them, you clear the junk out and the strokes improve. A simple enough piece of advice.

Then, in language studies, I've been reading a lot about quantity vs. quality with regards to gaining fluency--how floods of input and usage imperfectly learned ultimately causes more to stick in the long run than smaller chunks of information learned to perfection, perhaps explaining why exposure and immersion beats class-work every time.

So the following article was of particular interest to me. The idea the writer went about studying was what quantifiable traits could be found in common among people who have mastery over various subjects. I'll quote a key excerpt from the larger story, well worth reading if you are the type who aspires to gain any skills or abilities:
This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

I'm not sure what a master criminal does for 3 hours a day for 10 years to hone his criminality, but I found this to be a rather stunning bit of information, even if generalized. As well, the back half of the article discusses other aspects regarding window-of-opportunity for achieving greatness (which applies to Michelangelo, too).

What gave me the strongest hunch that this was so was seeing the work of some young artists, fresh out of art school. Their work was very good. It occurred to me that 10 years prior, these artists were all of 13 years old. 13 year old artists, even when they are good, aren't very good in the ultimate measure of quality--we grade on a curve for them and say they are fantastic (for being 13). So, in the course of those 10 years, those artists with some skill turned into fantastic ones. Prior to 13, it'd be interesting to measure their hours put in. I know for myself, from maybe 3rd grade-8th grade I probably spent ~8 hours a week or so drawing. I'm sure it felt like more. In those years, it was mostly uninstructed--me reinventing the wheel, as most young artists do without the benefit of good instruction. I'm sure my drawing habit before third grade was less time than that, and largely undisciplined.

In High School, that probably went up a bit. Let's say 10 hours. You see where this is going. By the end of High School I was probably at the the mid-point of so-called "mastery" of one medium: pencils. I imagine that painting would have its own curve, although a part of painting is drawing, so there has to be some overlap: like learning Italian after knowing Spanish.

Through Art School the hours jumped tremendously, and I'm guessing within a year or so of leaving I was around that goal for at least my primary medium. Which of course brings up the question of defining mastery, as I was hardly Ingres at that point when working in pencil.

I didn't became truly comfortable with painting until about the year 2000 or so. So perhaps a useful definition of mastery is the ability to utilize a skill in broad applications, with confidence and recognizable skill. You can hit that point in the English language without ever being anything near Shakespeare.

Though the article talks about those who are the tops of their fields, I imagine that mastery is somewhere below being a Bobby Fisher in chess. I would guess that every single NFL football player, even second-stringers, has mastered his position. It's just that beyond mastery, there are still levels and levels and, as Ingres shows us, levels beyond that.

When people say to me, as they often do, "I can't even draw a stick figure," there's this sort of woeful acceptance on their part that their inability is chronic. Probably they haven't devoted much disciplined time trying to do otherwise. I am not a very good dancer. I can count up the hours I've ever spent doing it and they'd be fewer than 50, I'm sure of it. For my wife, that would be a much higher number. I've never had much interest in improving my ability to dance, but neither do I feel incapable of getting good at it. I think I know it's just a matter of doing it a lot more, and I'd become good at it.

So, if you have a skill you've thought it would be great to be good at: another language, a musical instrument, painting or drawing, singing, skateboarding, or whatever, you have your marching orders: 10,000 hours. Get to work and you'll do it! I mean, some of you have already put in that amount of time on World of Warcraft, so now you can achieve something that won't disappear when the servers inevitably get unplugged someday.