Friday, February 25, 2011

Does it Really Take Ten Thousand Hours to Become an Expert?

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 confe...In the early eighties I had the opportunity to spend a month in Tokyo to help the local office of my corporation find and fix problems with a computer system I was working on. While there, a colleague and I were invited to my Japanese boss’s home for Sunday dinner.

I was a woman playing a man’s role at this dinner party. In fact, I was the only woman in the room. Our male boss greeted us at the door, and the only glimpse we had of his wife during dinner was as she silently waited on us with bowed head. More servant than hostess, she was relegated to her role in the kitchen.

After dinner my boss’s wife was allowed to join us, upon my request. She was thrilled at the invitation, and in an effort to please us she showed us some dolls that she had made. Entirely made of paper, these dolls were created by hand with elaborate series of folds. Their colorful costumes gave them character and a uniquely Japanese flair. My hostess was thrilled (and more than a little embarrassed) as I praised her creativity and artwork. “You should sell these,” I suggested. “How long did it take you to learn to make these?”

In perfect English my Japanese hostess responded, “Oh, no. They are not good enough to sell. I’ve only been making dolls for two years. It takes at least ten years before they are good enough to sell.”

To my untrained eye, the dolls were perfect, but my new Japanese friend knew that she had so much more to learn. She knew she had to put in more time. She subscribed to the dogma that we hear so often today:

It takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert.

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell outlines many examples of success, tied to opportunities – opportunities that allowed the expert to practice for ten thousand hours. One example Gladwell cites is Bill Gates. Gates had unique access to a high school computer at a time when most schools didn’t have them. He was able to log ten thousand hours programming on that computer, allowing him to become an expert at a very young age.
Ten thousand hours is roughly equal to forty hours a week for five years, or twenty hours a week for ten years.

It’s no wonder then that companies look for candidates with five years experience for skilled jobs. It’s not coincidental that many successful people offer up “persistence” and “dedication” as characteristics that contributed to their success. It’s no surprise that the violin student who practices the longest hours is often the first chair. There’s more to success than talent and desire.

Have you put in your ten thousand hours yet?


TMary said...

The phrase I grew up with, as a former violin student and life long learner was, 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. Your article rings true!

Carol Kilgore said...

Not quite, but I've passed the halfway point. I've heard in writing you need to write a million words before you really know what you're doing.

Colette said...

Wow -- a million words sounds very intimidating.

TMary -- violin is tough -- maybe need even more than 10000 hours?

Dave E said...

I think that it's really all about perception and who is doing the comparing as much as actual skill or knowledge.
Your housewife was obviously very good at making the dolls but in her eyes she was not. Maybe to her peers she was average but to the rest of us shew had skill and talent. to some she is an expert, to others not so much.
If someone knows more that I do, (even if they are only one page ahead of me in the book) they are an expert to me, especially if they can explain it to me!

We are all experts in something to someone and I suspect that many of us underestimate our level of knowledge and skill.

In many ways it is as much about self confidence and selling yourself as anything else.

Colette said...

Dave E, really great point!

KarenG said...

Fascinating story. I read Ouliers and have pondered that 10K hours idea. As for writing, I believe that all those childhood hours of reading count as writing practice.

Colette said...

KarenG - I agree that those reading hours should could... as well as all the book reports and papers, letters (remember when we actually wrote letters), and anything else we've written.

Joanne said...

I'm definitely working on it, and am well-immersed. I think that the 10,000 hours idea is a great way to suggest that, really, the craft or skill must become a way of life for it to reach that point.