The First Hundred Hours (#716)

Every Sunday, a brave piano teacher named Vidal ventures into our home to offer five consecutive piano lessons to our family.  He is endlessly patient, wonderfully flexible, and although none of us practice as much as he asks us to, we are noticing to our delight and surprise that occasional snatches of recognizable music emerge from our otherwise eclectic key pounding.

One of my favorite bits of research into what it takes to master any skill comes from Dr. Daniel Levitin, and I have quoted this excerpt from his work in past tips:

… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours per day, or twenty hours per week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

In response to this notion, a reader wrote me last week as follows:

10000 hours of practice is only acceptable advice if you assume that it is the right thing which is being practiced. Hard work alone just will not deliver. Practicing long hours to sing or play trumpet without learning to breathe properly will not deliver the result the effort deserves.Watch a golf driving range to see how many people are investing time and money but have the wrong grip or stance or technique to ever reach the level they are seeking.

This is undoubtedly true, and excellent books like The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated make this point as well.  But the reader then went on to say:

And as you of all people know so well, I could write 2000 words per day but unless I have mastered the craft I will never be read. Practice by all means but make sure you are practicing the right thing.

I appreciated the email, as it made me look a bit more closely into my own experience for insights.  The truth is, I began writing these tips just over ten years ago, having never written more than a couple of dozen school essays and a series of comic sketches for a Welsh radio show called 30 Something Else.

Had I been overly concerned about having “mastered the craft” back then, I never would have kept it up to the point where I have mastered (well, gotten pretty reliably good at) the craft.  And chances are that the first 100 hours of anything from golf swings to piano playing won’t involve very much (well, any) mastery at all.

The reason I like the notion of the 10,000 hours is that while it is daunting, it actually lowers the barrier to entry for most people, allowing them to know that the playful joy of the boys playing soccer in the streets of Brazil and the pleasure my 8 year old daughter (and her 43 year old father) get from pounding on the keys of a piano is more important as an entry point to learning than the perception of any “innate” talent.

At some point, it will indeed matter what specifically is being practiced, and I have no doubt that if one or more of us decide to go from tinkering to mastery our practice sessions will become more frequent and more precise.  But for these first 100 critical hours, the doing and the joy is enough.

With love,
Michael

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