Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours
I recently read a blog post on The Writer’s Coin which discussed some concepts from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I haven’t read the book (yet) myself, but it sounds fascinating, and the post got me thinking about expertise.
Gladwell claims that to be a world-class expert in any given subject requires 10,000 hours of practice.
That’s a lot of time.
Let’s say you work full time on a skill you want to be a world-class expert on. 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year (with two weeks of vacation) comes out to 2000 hours a year. So you would need to work full-time for five years. And we’re talking undivided attention here — time spent taking a break or working while distracted doesn’t count. 10,000 hours of real dedication, moving forward, challenging yourself, working at your edge and pushing beyond it constantly.
I say again: DAMN!
Even with enough free time, how do you find the motivation to do something like that?
Expertise and Me
Not everyone wants to be a world-class expert, and perhaps those who do usually have the dedication to work single-mindedly on their craft like this. I enjoy being good at things, but I’m less fond of the hard work required to get there. I guess that means I’m unlikely to ever be a world-class expert at anything, unless I discover something that I enjoy so much that it doesn’t feel like work to do it full-time.
I love the feeling of being the expert (a situation I have encountered a couple of times in my professional career), but the idea that true expertise requires that much time and effort is daunting at best. And yet the end result is so alluring that it might be worth it. Then it becomes a question of figuring out what to become an expert on, and that’s where things get really tricky. There are just so many choices!
I’ve been thinking lately about returning to the workforce (though likely in a limited capacity). For the first time in my career, I am thinking hard about what I want from an employer in terms of working conditions, company culture, and values. Expertise is one of the thoughts that keeps crossing my mind as I explore these ideas. “The expert” is my favorite role I’ve ever held in the workplace. Working in software quality assurance, I was often required to become an expert on how the product was supposed to work (and how it actually did work). This put me in a position to serve as a resource for other departments (technical writers, customer service folks, trainers, and even sometimes programmers). Being valued for my knowledge is extremely rewarding to me, whereas being valued for doing real work is almost annoying. I guess I like to be appreciated for my strengths rather than my weaknesses. 😉
I’m keeping this in mind as I think about employment — I will be much happier with a job if it offers me the opportunity to be the expert.
Cultivating Expertise in the Workplace
Now that I’ve worked a few different places, I have some perspective on what factors allow for the development of expertise. This is slanted toward a job in software QA, but I’m sure many of these factors are of general applicability.
- Small team size. The fewer ways the work is divided, the more each person has to know. Large teams dilute expertise. For large and complex projects, it can be valuable to have each person develop expertise on one or more areas of the project, however.
- Broad project scope. If an individual’s assignments are in too narrow an area of the product, it can be difficult for them to develop a good understanding of the big picture. Knowledge should be deep enough to qualify as expertise, but also broad enough to be useful often.
- Quick turn-around. Repetition helps a lot with retaining what you’ve learned. If you learn something once and never need it again, odds are the details will fade. On the other hand, if you use that information again every day of the week, it will soon become second nature.
- Good availability of information. Having an oracle of your own to turn to is invaluable in developing expertise, whether that oracle be another expert, printed documentation, a well-maintained wiki, or even just the application source code.
- Customer input. Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the fact that the customer WILL abuse your product in ways that no one ever could have anticipated. The customer is both your best friend and your worst enemy in terms of uncovering information about your product. They will help you discover new things, but you may well wish they hadn’t!
- Long-term attachment to one product/project. Switching from one project to another means that you’re no longer using and reinforcing the knowledge that’s unique to the first one, and you’re starting from scratch learning something new. That’s not an efficient way to leverage (or even maintain) your expertise. Working on one project for a long period of time allows you to maintain, develop, and deepen your expertise and put it to good use on a regular basis.
These elements will help you get closer to that ideal of 10,000 hours.
The blog post I mentioned above included this quote about the Beatles from Outliers:
All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.
Do your best to find or create a crucible for yourself, and expertise will follow.