Saturday, November 15, 2008

Doing the Math

Jason Zengerle has an interesting profile of Malcom Gladwell in the New York Magazine Books Section. (Gladwell has a new book, Outliers, arriving in a bookstore near you on Monday.) In the course of the profile, Zengerle mentioned something from the book that has been rattling around in my head this morning:

Gladwell cites a body of research finding that the “magic number for true expertise” is 10,000 hours of practice. “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good,” Gladwell writes. “It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Ten thousand hours. That’s a daunting statistic, but it’s also a hopeful one. I’ve been breaking it down in various ways in my head this morning. Some examples:

In the context of a nine-to-five job, it’s five years. (40 hours a week times 50 weeks = 2000 hours a year.) Intuitively, that makes some sense to me. I’ve spoken with any number of people who have told me, upon taking new jobs, that they figured it would take five years to get to the point where they were really good at it. And it’s been my own experience as a teacher that when I start teaching a new course, I need to teach it for about five years before I really have it in my head and my heart and my bones. I would also estimate that from the time I started practicing writing as a sort of apprentice (early in college) to the point where I started having a pretty clear sense of what I was trying to do and how I was going to go about it (about 15 years later), I must have logged somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours.

In the context of music or art lessons, and an hour of practice a day, it’s twenty-five years. (One hour lesson plus seven hours of practice each week, 52 weeks a year = 416 hours a year.) That also seems about right. There’s always the prodigy types that pick up a guitar at age 13 and are playing like Santana in six months, but really, how many of those have you known? For most of the rest of us mere humans, the only to cut the timeline down is to double or triple up on the practice time. If you want to practice 10 hours a day, you can rack up your ten thousand hours in less than three years. Chances are you’d have a couple of other problems by that time, though.

In the context of coursework in school, it’s either 55 years, counting just class time (an hour a day 180 days a year) or 28 years (if you factor in an hour’s work of homework between each class). It’s worth noting that even if you start in kindergarten, most people top out at 21 years. On the other hand, if you consider all the hours a college graduate in America has spent in class all told, one would have reason to expect that that student, according to the formula, would have arrived a certain level of academic expertise. (900 hours a year x 17 years = 15, 300 hours.) Which is, I suppose, what the college degree is attesting to.

It seems to me that this particular rule of thumb is something that it would be useful for students and aspiring writers and artists and musicians to know about and reflect upon. Zengerle closes his article with another quotation from Gladwell that sums up why:

We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, not because we have a scarcity of talent. We have a scarcity of achievement because we're squandering that talent. And that's not bad news, that's good news, because it says this scarcity is not something we have to live with. It's something we can do something about."

The numbers are in. Let's get cracking. The clock is running.

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