Practice, Practice, Practice… Is 10,000 Hours Really The Key?

Drawing for 10,000 hours would not automatically make a person into the next Da Vinci. One needs both the quantity of hours of doing and quality of thinking. What’s more, the keys to quality practice lie in making mistakes and getting informative feedback. Otherwise, the monotonous practice is at best, rote learning.

Nature's excellence.

Nature’s excellence.

It’s ironic that in the age of stressful lives, jam-packed schedules, and perpetual shortcuts, there has been this buzz about practicing 10,000 hours to reach excellence and expertise. Yet, the ultimate irony is that this focus on just the number is a half-truth, truncated from its original research finding. Anders Ericsson whose work on “The Making of Experts” lays out the foundation of how virtuosos have come about. Ericsson and his colleagues argue that expertise is not based on innate talents or skills, but years of “deliberate practice and coaching.” 10,000 hours of practice spanning roughly 10 years. Yes, practice is important, but it is not sufficient and it’s only half of the formula for success. The “deliberate practice and coaching” somehow got lost in the translation for popularization.

The deliberate effort entails focus and concentration, and mentors’/experts’ coaching provides the fuel for that focus. Highly concentrated practice, though, can be exhausting. Most virtuosos, of all fields, tend to do their most focused work in the morning and for only a handful of hours. During such focused work periods, their mindful engagement is in high gear analyzing one or two particular aspects of what they do to propel themselves to the next level. Still, there is value to autopilot-type of practice; we gain familiarity and minimize mistakes

Daniel Goldman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” adds another element in this “success formula:” feedback loop. Experts’ and coaches’ feedback is important, of course, but others’ input can also be valid and valuable. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes and ears, of someone outside the field, may provide some “out of the box” ideas. Equally important in such feedback loops is the attention to the mistakes we tend to make as we gain proficiency. Sounds like common-sense, but how often do we allow people to make mistakes, at work or elsewhere? (I have touched on this aspect many times in the past.)

However, the relationship between mistakes and progress isn’t symmetric. Rarely can we progress without faltering or making mistakes; yet mistakes alone don’t necessarily lead to progress. When we become more proficient in our instrument, task, project, we make less mistakes, but eventually our performance plateaus. Most people may be content to coast along – “good enough” being the standard – while exceptional practitioners want to push themselves further by taking up something new, or reaching new levels (and therefore making more mistakes). On the fifth hand, coasting along offers some value as well: we can daydream a little during this period. After all, daydreaming is a foundational part of the creative process.

I was told, "Excellent!"

I was told, “Excellent!”

Who says the road to excellence is a straightforward journey? It’s a constant interplay between making mistakes, learning, coasting, daydreaming, climbing, reflection, taking up new angles, discarding bad habits, and on and on.

The journey to excellence requires a lot of thoughtful hard work. However, even with thoughtful hard work doesn’t mean we can all become Einstein, Mozart, Michelangelo, Jane Austen, etc. Geniuses still need to work hard to stay exceptional, but I reject Ericcson’s notion that everyone can become a genius with the right combination of hard work and thoughtful deliberation. I will argue my case next week. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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