We have all heard the saying “Old age and treachery win out over youth and enthusiasm every time.” I notice that I tend to use it more often as I get older. The great thing about the saying is that it is usually true. It seems that it takes 10,000 hours to really be good at something.
While this saying has been around for a long time, Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success did a lot to make the idea known. The book debuted in 2008 at number one on both the New York Times and The Globe and Mail (Canada) non-fiction bestseller lists.
Michael Jackson probably reached his 10,000-hour mark by the time he was a teenager. He continued right up to the end putting in extreme effort on all aspects of everything he did, whether a performance or his house and grounds. You may not have liked him either as a performer or a person, but he sure was amazing at what he did.
The Beatles achieved their 10,000 mark in Germany before they want back to England in 1962, and to Ed Sullivan in 1964.
Your average airline pilot has more than 10,000 hours. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, the US Airways pilot who “landed” an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009, had over 19,000 hours of experience at the time. I think those passengers were really happy he had all of that experience.
This is true for almost any endeavor. I really want an accountant that has reached that mark. She will almost magically spot the silly stuff. I would much rather have an experienced surgeon than one with a still-wet diploma.
Even your “average” child prodigy probably has close to 10,000 hours with his or her skill, although there is no arguing that innate talent is a big help.
What is 10,000 hours? About five years if that is all you are doing. Ten years is probably a better estimate; that works out to 3 hours of real “practice” a day.
Young folk make mistakes. When I was learning to drive in Pennsylvania, you took a six-hour course that maybe had 30 minutes behind the wheel with a professional teacher, and maybe another 20 hours with your parents, always an interesting experience. By the time our kids were learning to drive in California, they needed a 20-hour course with a professional and a minimum of 100 hours with a parent or experienced older driver. Young drivers have great reflexes and excellent vision, and as long as nothing goes wrong they are usually OK. But any “huh?” event can be fatal, whether it is texting, a flat tire or other mechanical failure, bad weather, or some other driver not paying attention. This is a large reason why professional truck drivers have a much better safety record on a per driven mile basis than your normal casual driver: they have seen, and survived, a lot. Their instincts have become attuned to the smallest change in their environment.
Perhaps the real key to the 10,000-hour rule is that it is very hard to get surprised. You have seen it or something very much like it before. You know what works and, more importantly, what does not in any given situation.
While devoting 10,000 hours may be necessary to be really good at something, it is not sufficient. We have all had the really bad “experienced” teacher. Every school day, your average teacher spends maybe four hours in front of a class and another couple of hours in planning, preparation and grading. For this purpose, we can ignore the time spent in the purely administrative stuff and the workshop days. Unless the teacher is teaching the teachers, that time is not performing the “teaching” job. Thus this “average” teacher achieves 10,000 hours in nine or ten years. One of the worst teachers I ever had was at the University of Delaware. This guy had been teaching the same class for over 30 years and literally wrote the book. But he had no classroom presence, ignored students, and got lost in his lectures.
Bill Gates, in a 2011 interview with his father, agreed with the 10,000-rule, but added that there were a few other requirements: luck, timing, and a certain level of fanaticism. He claims that the key to getting to that level is surviving all of the attrition events. On average, 90% of the time people give up after 50 hours on something new, for any number of reasons. This includes the opportunity for your employer to give up on you. Another 90% give up after another 50 hours. It can be very difficult to hang in there for the full term.
When you are looking for someone or an organization to help your company make a significant change, you ought to pay attention to the 10,000-hour rule. You do not want to bring in a consultant who has recently taken a six-hour course on the subject; you would be better off taking the course yourself.
This can be a problem if you are looking to go to the Cloud. There are a lot of Cloud certificate programs out there, many of which require that you spend around 100 hours studying up for the test, and send them some money. I hold a Certificate of Cloud Security Knowledge from the Cloud Security Alliance. I probably spent about 100 hours specifically preparing for that certificate, but had spent the prior four years immersed in Cloud Computing in general and more specifically with security in the Cloud. That experience is on top of another 30+ years working in a variety of enterprise-class environments where performance, availability and security concerns were critical.
Ten people with 1,000 hours do not equal one person with 10,000. As you look at the Cloud, look also at the real experience theses Cloud Service Providers and consultants have that are bombarding you with “opportunities to help you.”
The last word:
Have you ever read a novel and just not quite believed one of the characters could do what the book said he or she did? I usually try to figure out why, especially in those cases where no significant variance in the laws of physics is postulated or assumed. At least to me, it is often because the author has not established any credibility for the character to gain the necessary skills. There has to be some reason why a mild mannered office worker sprints off after two armed men, catches one and disables him with a couple of quick blows, steals his gun and shoots the tires out of the getaway car. Unless you want to depend on the character’s amazing luck, somehow you should at least hint at how he earned the 10,000 hours status.
Incidentally, if you are a writer or trying to become one, I suggest you follow Jim Murray’s great blog Prescription for Murder. It contains everything from grammar lessons to how to write about murder, mayhem and medicine.
Keep your sense of humor.