Pretty Good

Megan Norris Jones

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hour rule, which states that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. This notion is both encouraging and discouraging. It’s encouraging because it means if I practice, I can become good. It has inspired me to dedicate time to my craft and consciously cultivate the skills I lack. It’s discouraging when I consider how long 10,000 take to rack up when I squeeze writing time into 15-30 minute increments. This is going to take a while.

Then I heard a TED Talk by Josh Kaufman, and he introduced me to the 20-hour rule. In it, he argues that, while it might take 10,000 hours to master a skill, 20 hours of deliberate practice can make you decent at most things.

Seriously? Just 20 hours? Yes, but the catch here is deliberate practice. This isn’t just time spent polishing the things you’re already good at. Deliberate practice requires a systematic approach and concentrated focus designed to continually push yourself to operate at the limits of your skill, thereby expanding those limits. In other words, it’s hard work.

Now, I don’t think I will be winning any Pulitzers with just 20 hours of practice, but it’s encouraging to think that maybe I can reach publication before I hit 10,000. Continuing to practice after achieving that initial goal means I’ll get closer to the expert skill level. Which means my second book can be even better than my first. And who doesn’t want that?

2 responses to “Pretty Good

  1. I think a lot of this is based on how you define “mastering a skill” or “decent at most things”.

    Mastering a skill:
    I have one of the coolest jobs in the world, I’m a journeyman substation operator, and I get to work with the really high voltage stuff. Tuesday I get to black out the town of Mapleton, Oregon for up to 6 hours. Did I mention how cool my job is? Before I was accepted into the apprenticeship to become a substation operator I took two years of college courses on power systems then I apprenticed for about 8000 hours of paid time and probably had another 2000 hours of study on my time off. All told I bet I had greater than 12,000 hours invested in my training before I received the title of “Journeyman”. Can I say “I have mastered a skill”? Most days the answer is “yes”. This was not to boast about how much training I have but to address the term “skill”. I think the 10,000 hour quote is referring to journeyman level ability and I believe 10k hours to be very accurate number.

    Decent at most things:
    I too believe that 20 hours to be “decent at most things” is accurate. As a private in basic training in the Army my total time on the M-16 range probably did not exceed 20 hours, qualified as an expert. Marching in formation, you guessed it, less than 20 hours and I had it nailed. To qualify as a paratrooper I went to jump school for three weeks but I bet the real training time was not more than 20 hours, the rest of the time was spent running, standing in lines and doing pushups. Did all of the above make me a super soldier? Of course not! I was just a dumb private that could shoot, march and jump out of airplanes.

    After 20 hours you should be proficient at a simple task like falling out of an airplane, not writing a best seller. I believe the writing will be far closer to the 10k hour mark than it is to the 20 hour desire. Please don’t let this dissuade you; you are far closer to the 10,000 hour mark than you realize. You have been reading and writing since childhood this is not something you started last week.

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