10,000 hours is a long time. The author Malcolm Gladwell first posed the statement that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. That’s 8 hours a day, every day, for about 3 ½ years. Or (more realistically), 1 hour a day – which would take over 27 years. It seems nobody has that kind of time to spend in our day in age. So how do you become a master at something when you don’t have 10,000 hours? First, let’s analyze whether Gladwell’s statement may hold true or not…
My dad brought up this topic while we were on the tour bus this week, and it’s been brewing in my mind. I got to thinking, and I asked myself, how many hours have I spent practicing music? Writing? How about touring or learning about the music industry? When I added up my singing alone, I only got to about 5,000 or 6,000. I sing at least an hour a day – and have for the past 10 years (and before that I probably sang 20-30 min a day since age 4) + performances, recording, and writing music. How is it possible that I have not achieved 10,000 hours??? It seems that all I do is play music!! However, my dad reminded me, music is not the same as just singing. Nor is playing piano, guitar or ukulele. A master piano player cannot simply pick up a trumpet for the first time and be accomplished in that as well. Each and every instrument or field of music (or any skill for that matter) takes a separate amount of time to master. So although I may spend almost the entirety of every day helping to run Songbird Records, practicing all of my instruments, touring and recording – I am not (by the 10,000 hour rule) a master in any yet.
However – when we added up my dad’s time as a Saxophonist, we found that he had greatly surpassed the 10,000 hour mark. We stopped counting once we had calculated 23,000 hours or so. As a Berklee (College of Music) student, he spent around 6 hours every day for over 3 years playing his saxophone. Instead of going home for the summer, he worked day in and day out at completely mastering his art. When the other students returned from summer break, he realized the depth of his accomplishments, simply by comparing his grades to theirs. Now it’s been over 38 years since he began playing saxophone, and in my opinion (and so many others as well), he is the best saxophonist in the world. So in this case, 10,000 hours proved to be true, because he is indeed a master, and has been for so many years.
I can see the argument that you must first have an inclination towards the skill you are trying to master, and that may very well be true. Think about this; if all it took was 10,000 hours to achieve mastery – why don’t we see more people reaching it? For instance – I may try for 10,000 hours to become as brilliant of a painter as Monet, and may still never even come close, because I was not naturally inclined to be a painter. Whereas my good friend, Emily, was a born artist, and with 10,000 hours may even surpass Monet. (Just saying – you’re awesome Em!!!) This is why we see certain kids excel in school at some subjects. Their minds (and hearts) know the way and they will naturally take to a certain path. Even though you may study each subject equally, there will almost always be something that’s easiest to understand or that you love a little more than the rest – and THAT is what you will excel at with practice.
I look at the athletes competing at the Olympics in South Korea, and I wonder how many hours they have spent in preparation? Could it be that each of them has achieved over 10,000 hours? When I think about the time spent training for something so huge, I would assume that they spend at LEAST 2 hours every day perfecting their art, if not many more hours. Plus of course increasing their conditioning and strength with other exercises. But most Olympians are young, and (with a few exceptions) under 30 years old. If they started training around age 8 and are only 18 years old when competing, (assuming they practiced an average of 2 hours a day, every day, on their specific specialty of sport) they would fall almost 3,000 hours short of mastery. However, certain skills learned can cross between different fields. For instance, as a figure skater – you need knowledge of ballet training in order to best execute your routine. Which as a result, would increase your hours of practicing figure skating, because it can translate between the two sports. Coming back to music for a moment, certain skills are universal and don’t need to be learned separately for each instrument/specialty. For instance, learning to read sheet music is an almost universal concept between different fields of music (besides some slight modifications and associating the notes on a new instrument with what you already know how to read), as are certain beats and feels to a song. Once you learn certain concepts, they can translate beautifully between different areas of study, which greatly decreases the 10,000 hours PER individual subject.
What about prodigies? Do they apply to the 10,000 hour rule? I’m sure you’ve heard of kids who innately understand how to play piano, or have managed to master a skill in mere months, which might make one question Gladwell’s theory. In fact, prodigies even challenge our model of learning and education. If someone finds their calling (speaking esoterically for a moment) doesn’t that mean that’s what they were destined to do? And does that mean that everyone has a calling to something – even if they don’t know what it is yet? I think so. On a personal level, our mission in life should be to find our passion and nurture it. You could argue, why should you waste valuable time learning or practicing anything else, if you’ve already found what you’re good at??? And that’s where you stop to think. You see, everything we learn and absorb on a daily basis influences us. For example, If you were to stop studying anything else, once you had found you had a natural inclination to, say, gymnastics; you would miss out on reading the literature that inspired the thirst for knowledge, or practicing math (which is actually useful in many scenarios!), or you may not even learn about the world or entire universe around us. You may very well achieve mastery in gymnastics, but most likely will do so without the passion. Your entire world would revolve around gymnastics and you would probably lose the desire or will to continue with it. That’s why we must constantly expand our minds, challenging what we think we know, in order to feed our souls. Everything in life has a balance, and everyone has a breaking point.
But who’s to say that you must work 10,000 HOURS to become a master at something? Are there any hacks or shortcuts we can use? What about focusing on the quality of your time vs. the quantity… Instead of making it your mission to study or practice longer, how about increasing your efficiency? You may be able to get the same amount done in 3 hours instead of 8. It’s important to keep your brain clear from distractions when practicing your art or field of study. For instance, I was homeschooled my entire life, and I found that instead of studying my courses for 8 hours or more a day, I learned the best by studying an hour at a time for 2-3 hours daily. I almost always worked through holidays and summers, and as a result, I finished my coursework 2 years early and graduated high school at 16. Then I was able to continue my education by starting college courses. By keeping my time efficient and condensed, my concentration was higher and I was able to better grasp what I was learning at a quicker rate. There’s also another study that I came across not too long ago that states; the human brain best remembers what you learn first and last in each session. Everything in between seems to get lost in the shuffle. That’s why it’s crucial to take breaks in between your learning / practice time – in order to rest your mind and allow each topic to marinate. However, that doesn’t mean that you will simply remember each thing you read that’s ordered first and last…
An easy way to think about the way memories work is that our brains file our thoughts into two general places; short term and long term. The short term is “deleted” after a day or so; discarding things like the way you chewed your food at lunch, walking to another room and unimportant activities that you probably don’t need to remember with precision. Typically it sorts short term as things you didn’t feel great emotion towards, or the seemingly mundane parts of your day. But, what also gets buried, are things that you may not want to forget; such as parts of conversation, things you learned and more. It can also help protect your body and mind by causing you to forget details of trauma and negative experiences.
So, how can you tell your brain to remember certain things, in order to increase your learning efficiency and achieve mastery? That’s where your long term memory kicks in. Things that you’ve learned multiple times, in different situations, tell your mind that the information is important, and it therefore files it as long term. Think about all the ways that your mind receives information on a daily basis; through reading, writing, watching, talking, smelling, listening, touching, tasting, moving, perceiving, dreaming, feeling, imagining and more. We can’t blame our minds for filing information as short term and irrelevant if it was only recorded one time, and through one vice. For me, when I read a book, I not only see it with my eyes, I emote it into my imagination, mouthing the words, building the book’s world around me. I touch the letters on the page, absorbing not only what is happening in the story, but also observing my own surroundings and how I feel while reading it. Think about all of the ways I have just immersed myself in a single book – a single memory. Sight, Sound, Touch, and most importantly, using my mind.
We have been trained to think that the more hours you put into practicing something, the more you will learn. But what if that concept is completely wrong? Why can’t we train our minds to file the right information as long term?
It’s important to remember one more concept about the way memory works. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. You cannot learn something once and expect to remember it in detail 10 years from now, unless of course you have a super brain with photographic memory. For us normal folk, we must learn how to use the tools we have been given. An easy way to keep information handy, is repetition. When you first learn a concept, come back to it in 2-3 hours to ingrain it into your memory. Then 1-2 days later, review it. Now 1-2 weeks later, review it again. Let a few months pass, and recall it once more. Now that information will stick. Keep recalling and reviewing it briefly every year or so to keep it fresh, as your mind is constantly filling with more and more information, therefore burying the older, less prominent memories underneath your newest. But just like that, you’ve hacked your mind and memory.
Now think about how you can apply those concepts to the 10,000 hour rule. Do you still think you must spend that long in order to reach mastery? Or, can a natural calling, mixed with the right teachers, learning method and a little bit of time be enough? And what is mastery status anyway? Everyone has a different perception of what mastery is. Is mastery gaining fame? Winning an award? Is it recitation? Or, is it being able to feel what it is you do in your soul? Perhaps it’s a culmination of all of those things. My personal viewpoint on ultimate mastery is that it doesn’t exist. I know, I know – you’re wondering why you’ve just read an entire post about how to master something and I’ve just shattered the notion in one sentence. But, you see – no matter what knowledge I gain, or what level I think I’ve reached, there is still so much to learn – which is so exciting! Our definition of mastery is that you have comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment. But comprehensive means complete – and we still discover new things on a daily basis, in every field. So how can you be a master when you are still learning? What do you think? All I know for certain is that one must stay humble, positive and keep the flame of discovery alive.
As a great man once said; “I am still learning” – Michelangelo