The Journey from novice to competent to excellent: 10000 hours to expert.

10000 hours to expert. It’s what they say. But is it true?

Moving from being a newbie to leader, fledgling entrepreneur to business maven, or  student to  professoriate, is a long journey. In some ways one shouldn’t endeavor to grow out of being a student of your field. There is always something to learn – always new pedagogical techniques to consider, new ways of doing things, and new research being published, and new ways to apply that knowledge and those skills.

A bit like life really.

Daniel Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music talks about the theory of 10,000 hours:

… 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. 

At 40 hours a week, 10 000 hours equates to 250 weeks, or 4.8 years.

Funnily enough, that’s about the length of time it takes someone to get a PhD or longer than the amount of time a small business in the USA stays in business, on average.

Convenient? not so much.

My immediate connection to thinking about the relationship between the 10 000 hours and academia is one that Dan Reid has also considered:

It takes time to get good at anything of real value, and the subconscious absorption of situations, patterns, outcomes and what not amounts to a value gained that is more than the sum of its parts. You look at a manuscript and say to yourself, “This just isn’t right.” As an editor, it can be the hardest thing to come up with the words to communicate to an author why this is so—and to say it helpfully, not abrasively or deflatingly. 

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On the way to 10,000 hours, it helps to have some models to follow. Models can be observed at a distance, but preferably up close and personal. It helps to understand the work it takes to achieve excellence and expertise. Angela Duckworth’s Grit also explores the 10,000 hour theory although she indicates that the deliberate practice extended over 10 years is closer to the mark.

But it also applies to academic work—and to academic editors too. One way to look at the Ph.D. is to think of it in terms of the 10,000-hour theory. At root it’s a way of trying to get some kind of leverage on whether a person has “10,000 hours” of disciplined experience in making considered judgments in a subject area—in its methods, history, context, texts and ideas more generally. 

The metaphor of a journey is apt then, as I fumble from novice to competent, hoping to one day scale the heights of excellence. And being able to recognize the areas where excellence has been developed and having confidence in those skills and the hours it took to achieve them.

So how do we develop deliberate practice exercises? There are, of course, knowledge areas that you may need to be familiar with – but sometimes it is about exercising a skill set. Develop a list of knowledge areas you would like to improve and set about finding a systematic way of learning those areas. This doesn’t always mean another certification – rather it is about deliberately working on your areas of weakness and further strengthening your strong areas of knowledge and skill.

For me writing in specific formats and for specific outlets is a skills that requires deliberate practice. I have to push through each part of the process – at various points I have accepted the tutelage of a writing mentor, and been part of an incredibly productive writing group.

How are you seeking out experienced and skilled mentors? On what basis do we decide what to learn? What areas do you need to up your quality deliberate practice?

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