10,000 Hours Doing WHAT?

(Originally posted 2011-07-07.)

It’s a popular suggestion that what separates the truly exceptional person from the rest of us is 10,000 hours of "practice". In book form I’ve seen it twice – in Matthew Syed’s "Bounce" and in Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers". Actually, to be fair, Matthew acknowledges his original source so that’s actually only one distinct source. (Life Lesson aside: Trace ideas and "facts" back to see if they came from one place or are truly corroborated.)

The suggestion is that there’s no such thing as innate talent and that all that matters is practice – 10,000 hours of it. And this is often repeated now in public folklore.

I find this assertion problematic for a number of reasons – though I’m prepared to admit I could be wrong.

For a start I find it very hard to believe we all respond the same way to our experiences, that we have the same physiology and brain "wiring".

Secondly – and this is where the title of the post comes in – 10,000 hours of what? Actually the suggestion is that it is useful practice. The issue for me is that the usefulness of the practice is highly variable – depending on who we are, how motivated we are and how tired we are (and maybe many other variables besides).

Thirdly, there is what I call the categorisation problem: Take the example of someone who is a generalist in, say, Information Technology. They could easily gain 10,000 hours of experience, perhaps good experience, spread across their whole domain. Does this make them an expert? If they spent the whole 10,000 hours in a narrower area what kind of an expert does that make them? And if they spent two chunks of 5,000 hours in two areas are they not an expert in either? What if those two areas were abutting? What if they weren’t?

That previous paragraph had a lot of questions in it. Some are easy to answer, some less so. Maybe – and here I hope is the relevance of this whole "10,000 hours" idea – these sorts of questions allow one to "evaluate" one’s career. I put "evaluate" in quotes because I don’t mean this as a scorecard: There are very many valid paths through life. But, for example, discovering your 10,000 hours have been spent scattered across a wide range of topics might tell you you’re a generalist. But then you probably knew that. 🙂

A more difficult case is what to do when you discover you’ve spent 10,000 hours in the same area. With a low boredom threshold like mine there’s a premium on convincing yourself there’s been some diversity. 🙂 But has there really? Or the converse: 10,000 hours concentrated in one area, but is it really one area?

In my case – and this post isn’t really about me – I’ve convinced myself 🙂 of three things: That there’s plenty of variety, that the technology keeps evolving at a dizzying pace, and that my role has in any case morphed over time. Actually, I think a lot of us feel that way.  

But does all this change keep resetting the counter to zero hours? I’d maintain it didn’t: The way I learn and (I think) the way I incorporate situations into my experience base is accretive (adding on around the edges of what I already know).  So I don’t really think the counter ever resets: We just start new counters occasionally. But I wouldn’t count some of the new technology I dabble in as "start at zero" – despite how much it sounds like babbling. 🙂

I enjoy being in the babble phase. But, like most people, I worry about the quality of the work I produce in that phase. I particularly enjoy when I spot the experience beginning to build. That "10,000 hour"idea just might be motivational. And now for a gratuitous Metallica lyric. 🙂

"Trust I seek and I find in you
Every day for us something new
Open mind for a different view
and nothing else matters"

In the spirit of "10,000 hours" don’t you think that’s a great verse? Anyhow, keep logging those hours. Who’s to say "it’s all been a waste of time"? 🙂

| Minor edit 27 October to fix "whose" that should’ve been "who’s". Dunno how that crept in there. 😦

Published by Martin Packer

I'm a mainframe performance guy and have been for the past 35 years. But I play with lots of other technologies as well.

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