I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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practicing archery

It’s an oft-quoted truism in books on learning and productivity that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve true mastery in any skill, from composing symphonies to playing tennis.

Is it true? I have absolutely no idea. It’s certainly an appealing concept, though. We’re used to thinking of genius as an elusive, magical thing that springs fully formed. Boiling down Mozart’s greatness to a regime of dozens of hours a week at the piano until he he’d hit the 10,000-hour mark (before his voice changed) makes the idea of learning to play the piano seem more approachable. It gives you a sense of the distance between point A and point B.

Still, at the rate of 20 or 30 minutes every week or two when you’re feeling restless won’t add up to even Yanni-level playing any time this decade.

Let’s take the baby steps approach.

What Do You Want to Learn?

It would be nice to know how to speak three languages, jam on the guitar, play a mean game of golf, and even swing dance like Vince Vaughn in a pinch. In fact, if you could do all that and also “fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”

But life is short.

The subject of determining which skill is worth your time, which you’ll really enjoy, and which you’ll be able to afford is worthy of a few posts of its own. So let’s just assume that you’ve thought long and hard, weighed the pros and cons, and decided to become a master at building flat-pack furniture from IKEA. For the sake of example.

To Build It Up, Break It Down

OK, we’ve got our skill. And, we’ve got our number: 10,000 hours. Let’s call that mastery. (Worst comes to worst, let’s say you practice 10,000 hours and you’re still not a master. I guarantee you’ll still be awesome.)

Let’s call Mastery “Level 5.” See, learning’s a gradual thing. It’s not like you’ll suck after 9,999 hours of building flat-pack furniture and then wham, one more hour of practice and you rock.

In fact, after 8,000 hours of practice you’re bound to be amazingly good. Good enough to be a pretty good teacher to others. Not black belt, maybe, but brown belt. Let’s call that Level 4, or “Adept” level.

You see where I’m going with this:

  • Level 1: Novice (2,000 hours)
  • Level 2: Apprentice (4,000 hours)
  • Level 3: Journeyman (6,000 hours)
  • Level 4: Adept (8,000 hours)
  • Level 5: Master (10,000 hours)
So we’ve got a D&D-inspired vocabulary. Now what?

Instead of putting one of those pointless projects on your list like “learn French” (that one’s going to be there for a while), you’ll put “watch French in Action for an hour (approaching Novice).” And in the note for that task you’ll put a tally. Every time you complete a particular task toward the larger skill goal (the next level of mastery), you’ll increase the tally of hours.

Leveling Up

So let’s say you’ve been building flat-pack IKEA furniture for 1,998 hours. You sit down on a Sunday afternoon and assemble that gorgeous LEKSVIK bedside cabinet you bought. Adding 2 hours to your tally, you realize you’ve reached Novice level.

Time to party!

Give yourself a gold star. Go out to dinner. Tell everyone on Facebook.

Look back at the last 2,000 hours and you’ve suddenly got perspective. Do that same amount of practicing again and you’ll be an Apprentice. 3 more times after that and you’ll be the Mozart of building flat-pack furniture. Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, will invite you to Älmhult, Sweden, to toast your incredible talents. Hurray!

I’m Good Enough to Know I suck

As an adult, you’re competing against no one but yourself. There are no grades, no curves. Back in school, trying to excel was daunting because you didn’t want to get outpaced by others. In the real world, you learn skills for your own enjoyment and at your own pace, so instead of judging your abilities by some arbitrary marker, like your own subjective taste, it makes much more sense to choose a concrete indicator like total number of hours spent practicing.

As you probably know, the better you are at something, the worse you think you are, at least in the early stages. A lousy writer will often think his own writing is just fine. As you gain in skill, your eye improves and the flaws in your writing become apparent. This can be paralyzing: your eye always improves faster than your hand. Getting over that hump can be difficult in any skill, but if practice duration is your goal instead of quality, the going will be a lot less stressful. Eventually, your performance will begin to catch up with your taste.

If 2,000 hours still seems too daunting, break it up again. Into 500 hours chunks, perhaps. And make sure to tell the world when you reach each milestone. Before you know it, you’ll be building a flat-pack IKEA house.

Photo by ninahale.

18 Comments

  • judyofthewoods

    gravatarFeb 7, 2008
    7:39 am

    Any figure with three “0”s tagged on sounds daunting, however, many skills have a common base on which we can build our learning which may well reduce the time it takes to master a new skill, if mastery is what we even want. As a compulsive creator I am not afraid of trying out many new thing, and get reasonable results, often good results, without having to learn too much new stuff. There is one universal skill which works wonders when you have at least some experience, which I call the “let the force be with you” skill. If you surrender to your inner master, and let the work flow or the tool do the work for you, you may be surprised at what you can achieve. May not work in every instance, but it is a handy thing to have in your tool kit. It is also a confidence feedback loop.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarFeb 7, 2008
    7:43 am

    Very good point, Judy. And that ties into another point, which is to only pursue a skill you actually enjoy doing. If sitting at the piano and banging the keys doesn’t give you some sense of satisfaction in the moment, it’s not worth doing even if the idea of being good at the piano appeals to you.

    If you just want to make music, there are other ways of doing it (from playing the recorder to messing around with loops in GarageBand) that are much more amenable to the Force.

  • Loren – Writing Power

    gravatarFeb 7, 2008
    7:58 am

    This is a terrific way to think about skill building, David. Breaking a large goal down so that you feel like you’re making progress each day is incredibly powerful.

    From now on, as I post each day I’ll think about leveling up. Great post.

    Cheers, Loren

  • feebo

    gravatarFeb 7, 2008
    10:11 am

    can’t we have more posts about design? this blog seems to be losing its focus – no offense, david.

  • Denise

    gravatarFeb 7, 2008
    10:19 am

    Very interesting, but I don’t think all skills require the same amount of time to master. Mastering flat-pack IKEA furniture probably won’t take 10,000 hours… but mastering the piano will. Also, two people might work the same amount of time towards the same goal, but one might be more advanced because he has better practice habits.

    I think I might try the lvl up idea for the next skill I’ll try to master (but I’ll base it on skills reached as apposed to hours practiced).

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarFeb 7, 2008
    2:29 pm

    Feebo–yeah, my posts are definitely productivity-centered. Fact is, I’m a book editor, not a designer, so I’m limited in that area.

    Denise–yeah, the choice of flat-pack furniture was facetious. I’m talking about skills with longer learning curves. And sure, practicing well will get you to your destination faster in the same amount of time, but in this case you’re only competing against yourself, so the only important factor is how effectively you yourself practice.

    I’ll do a post on good practice habits down the line. Thanks for the idea.

  • Britt

    gravatarFeb 7, 2008
    3:05 pm

    I agree with Judy that the four-digit figure is daunting. However, I think it can also serve as a reminder to be gentle with yourself. You may be struggling to improve some aspect of your new skill, but you can remind yourself, “It’s okay, I’m still a novice. I’m still allowed to make mistakes.”

    It also fits in with the idea that, even if you are frustrated with what you’re doing, you have to keep your hands in your work, keep playing with it, keep turning it this way and that. You can’t put pressure on yourself to make great leaps forward every day, but neither are you likely to accomplish much if you just stand off from it and wait for inspiration to strike from the clear blue sky. Just keep putting in the time, and you will see results.

  • Duff

    gravatarFeb 8, 2008
    9:05 am

    I love the D&D leveling-up reference. :)

    Another way of thinking about the 10,000 hours is 10 years at about 2 hours, 45 minutes a day, or 5 years at 5 hours, 30 minutes a day.

    If that sounds like a ton, it is! But it’s less than the best are practicing.

    At any conservatory of music you’ll find young musicians practicing 5-10 hours a day…not including their ensemble time or music theory classes.

    This is a big reason why they become world-class musicians, and the rest of us don’t.

    Passion and natural genius are also a big factor. Life is short–choose one thing to master at this level, or work twice as hard to master two. :)

  • Chanpory Rith

    gravatarFeb 8, 2008
    11:26 am

    feebo,

    You’re right, I haven’t been doing my share of the design posts recently. The secret is that I’ve been hard working on a redesign of the site. Stay tuned :-)

  • iphonememe

    gravatarFeb 8, 2008
    7:38 pm

    David – intriguing post!

    It is interesting that you assume a linear progression here, with 2,000 hours between each level.

    It must be different for everyone, but I wonder if for most it might often work more like this:

    * Level 1: Novice (1,250 hours)
    * Level 2: Apprentice (3,000 hours)
    * Level 3: Journeyman (4,500 hours)
    * Level 4: Adept (6,500 hours)
    * Level 5: Master (10,000 hours)
    

    A quicker progression through the early stages, and a long, grueling trudge from Journeyman to Master. I think there might be evidence of this in just how many guitar players we all know at levels 1, 2, and 3 ;-)

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarFeb 11, 2008
    10:57 am

    iphonememe–excellent comment! Yes, I think that breakdown makes a lot more sense.

  • Leonard Snow

    gravatarFeb 11, 2008
    9:15 pm

    Interesting article – yet there are many pitfalls to the hours technique. In business hours are costs. Sure there should be a balance between costs and quality work – in particular in the service industry. At the extreme you can “efficiently” tell a terminal patient of their illness – or you can take the more human approach. So where am I getting at? Well the thing is – it’s not about the hours, the hours are a byproduct the actual, immeasurable skill – that’s what’s most important. And how to measure it? Well that’s the hard part – but counting hours, that’s only an illusion of productivity/achievement.

  • XXXXXXXXXX

    gravatarFeb 13, 2008
    2:57 pm

    with updates every week or so, even with an extra guy writing here, is pathetic. So naturally, i don’t be reading this blog any longer. Thanks!

  • Katie

    gravatarFeb 18, 2008
    7:20 am

    Good job, David! This article really grabbed my attention. I’ve been thinking about it the past couple of days… It makes sense; say with a certain skill like painting or riding a bicycle, you need a certain level of exposure to the activity before you know enough to be able to hone the technique and analyze the nuance.

    As a college student, there are many skills I would like to improve, but when making goals to write more often or read every night, I hardly realize that I do all of those things on a regular basis while doing homework.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of using some Time-tracking software to try to keep track of this. Surely, it will make me feel better if I realize I’ve already spent 5 hours this week writing and 12 reading, and I can squeeze out a few more solely for pleasure on top of that. I’ve looked at Klok and Kimai, but I’d really like something that allows you to “tag” by project. That way, I can tell how much time I’m writing overall, how much in English and in Spanish, and which classes are sucking the most life out of me. :-)

    Any suggestions, anyone?

  • bab00n

    gravatarOct 12, 2008
    11:54 am

    The closer you get to your genetic potential, the longer it takes to get even closer. It’s a parabola. You can’t get better evenly like that, a better levelling scheme would look more like although i’m sure it could be even more extreme: Level 0: Total newb (0 hours) Level 1: Novice (100 hours) Level 2: Apprentice (300 hours) Level 3: Journeyman (800 hours) Level 4: Adept (2500 hours) Level 5: Master (10,000 hours)

    Also the quality of practice makes a huge difference. You could practice for 20,000 hours but never quite reach true mastery, always staying adept. And also some will be able to reach mastery in a bit less than 10,00 hours.

    Genetic factor also plays a role but it is small and only really plays a part at the total newb level (a guy with a higher IQ will perform better when first learning a task) or at the opposite end of the spectrum (no one will ever squat as much as Paul Anderson no matter how hard they train unless a guy with his extremely rare genetic potential starts weight training which is only likely to happen about once a century).

  • Jackson

    gravatarJan 22, 2009
    3:41 pm

    Hey, that’s me in the picture!

  • Joanna

    gravatarSep 20, 2009
    10:19 pm

    So basically- just be there with your tools and it will take on a life of it’s own

    Joanna

  • edson

    gravatarJan 12, 2010
    3:00 am

    SUPER article…

    heres proof why this is true…

    some one said its possible to remain “adept” after 20,000 hours..

    ok thats fair,

    so get this….

    has that individual not become a “master” something other than the percieved goal?..

    after handling any task for even 3 hours, as SOON as you drift to sleep, you’re brain is already forming neural connections on how to handle that task, the way you intended. you’re brain thinks that task is part of you’re evolution so it adapts as fast as you believe possible…

    Look at a baby… it holds no belief that it can learn to walk in 20 years… it simply LOOKS at YOU and does it in three.. pure… raw… desire to copy you… not to “walk”, cuz it has no concept of the word. but after hours of attempts.. falling, getting back up falling again.. its done Properly, this is an overlooked miracle in its self… Duration matters.

    ive made music for quality, and over short time, you get Disgusted by you’re own craft no matter how beautiful others think it is… but when i made music for duration and less self editing, There IS a freedom in that so very REAL… just try it out.. what ever you want to undertake. if its too overwhelming, just decide to master a tiny portion of that thing, do its so many times, and if you make a list of all the different ways you can do it, youll begin to see hidden angles very few have seen, but heres the best part..suddenly there will be an avalanche of ease for all the other things people are trying to master, and thats way better than trynna master the whole thing at ocnce.

    happy mastering. eddie