Become an expert in only 10,000 hours

I’ve been reading Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music. It’s hard to describe it briefly, because Levitin so skillfully interweaves his knowledge of music with the science of the brain.

In one chapter, Levitin asks, “What makes a musician?” From there, he moves to the topic of expertise. In the world of music, you might ask what factors are involved in talent. It’s clear that some people acquire a musical scale much faster than others. What’s not clear is why and how.

We do know that the region of the brain controlling the left hand increases in size as violinists practice. We don’t know, however, whether some individuals are more prone to have this increase than others are.

So, what’s an expert? Generally, says Levitin, “someone who is reached a high degree of accomplishment relative to other people. As such, expertise is a social judgment.”

Expertise also involves value (at least most of the time). I may be extremely skillful at re programming the clock on my car’s radio, but few people would regard that as true expertise.

The emerging picture… is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.

I’m sure that 10,000 hours is an approximation. At the same time, it seems to reflect reality. Three hours a day, seven days a week, comes to 10,000 hours — in 10 years. A Scottish proverb says that to the making of a piper go “seven years of his own learning, and seven generations before.” The MacCrimmons of Skye would know more about the seven generations, but four hours of practice today would come to 10,000 in seven years.

This concept of 10,000 hours intrigues me; it also has implications for training and learning. This New York Times article from 1994 quotes Dr. Anders Ericsson, an expert in, well, expertise (as does Levitin).

“You have to tweak the system by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits,” said Dr. Ericsson. “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

You also have to manage the amount of practice per day. More than four hours on a regular basis seems to be counterproductive.

Two professors from Brigham Young University, Larry C. Farmer and Gerald R. Williams, discuss deliberate practice in this draft document (PDF). They wanted to get their students beyond merely competent skill in interviewing, counseling, and negotiation.

Research and experience indicate a similar dynamic obtains in law practice; within the first few years of practice, most lawyers reach a plateau or comfort level with these skills which they rarely surpass. The literature suggests this plateau effect derives from the human tendency to improve to “an acceptable level of proficiency and then let up on our effort or divert our energy into other channels…”

They also cite Jennifer A. Moon’s elements of reflective practice:

  • An on-going motivation to maintain self-awareness
  • Mindfulness regarding professional skills and handling events related to one’s practice
  • A critical orientation toward the performance of one’s professional skills or the handling
    of events in practice
  • An ongoing process of self-evaluation
  • An openness to evaluation by others

Not a bad list to guide you through those 10,000 hours on your own way to expertise.

Piping photo by Photo by preciouskhyatt / Patrick Kennedy.

11 thoughts on “Become an expert in only 10,000 hours

  1. Hi Dave,
    Many thanks for letting me know about Daniel Levitin’s book and web site. I am eager to read his book (as well as John Medina’s, which I’ve just ordered), especially after reading your comments above.

    Later this weekend I’ll return here to read some more of your posts!

  2. Interesting… Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for 10,000 hours leading to expertise in Outliers, as well. I’m sure he may have had some of the same resources, and he tells a lot of good stories to support the idea. For a lot of reasons, it’s a powerful book for educators/trainers/administrators.

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