Monday, November 2, 2009

10,000 hours to mastery

I just read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. Gladwell is a talented explainer of scientific ideas. In this he joins a distinguished company of popularizers of science such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, James Burke (famed for his BBC television series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed), and Carl Sagan. If Gladwell hires a bigger research staff and publishes several more books, the media may begin to refer to him as a science historian instead of a mere best-selling science journalist.

I was intrigued by the second chapter of Outliers, called The 10,000-hour Rule. Gladwell wrote about research conducted in the early 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson while at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (After making a reputation for himself, Ericsson jumped to a position at Florida State University -- a noted football power.) Ericsson and two German colleagues had evaluated the skill of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music and found that musical skill correlated closely with the student's total accumulation of practice hours. The elite students had put in about 10,000 hours (roughly 3 hours per day over 10 years); mediocre students had put in about 8000 hours; and students destined to be music teachers in the public schools had put in a paltry 4000 hours. Ericsson found very similar results with piano students. Other researchers found that the 10,000 hour rule was generally applicable to ice skating, chess, writing, and a variety of other physical and intellectual skills.

My own experience jibes with these findings. Both my sons started practicing violin at a young age, accumulated their 10,000 hours (at somewhat different rates), and have attained violin mastery. I myself watched a great deal of television in my youth -- easily more than 10,000 hours by the time I started college -- and thereby achieved a double mastery: television watching and sitting. My television mastery has given me a Zen-like ability to transcend time. I can watch television for an entire evening without fidgeting or losing concentration. My sitting mastery has proved to be the foundation of a long and stable career in the aerospace industry.

Future mastery is in store for me. By the end of the year, I will have devoted nearly 400 hours to writing blog entries. If I can keep up this torrid pace for another 25 years, I will achieve blog mastery in 2034. I invite my loyal readers to observe my progress over the next quarter century.