August 4, 2008

Ten Thousand Hours

Does ten thousand hours refer to how long it feels like it's taking for me to get better from this sore throat (negative for strep, btw), or to how long I've been boring people with my plight via Twitter?

In any case, I've had a chance to take up some neglected reading (finished Sharpe's Rifles yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it). Maybe if I get back on a roll I'll attempt the next Aubrey-Maturin book. Fulfilling, but a commitment.

"Ten thousand hours" refers to something I'm reading in This Is Your Brain on Music. Maggie and I had a brief conversation the other day about talent and learning -- how much of an effect does innate talent have on learning and that sort of thing.

TIYBoM covers this in one of its sections, and mentions a hypothesis about the amount of time it takes for mastery in nearly any subject. By "mastery" I mean "becoming remarkably proficient" or "world class" in your chosen field.

Levitin, the author, says there is evidence in many fields that ten thousand hours of practice is required to reach this world class level. That's something like three hours a day of practice for ten years. (BTW, I am a world class websurfer)

How about people like Mozart who reached such proficiency at a young age? Isn't that talent? Maggie mentioned to me a local piano player who burned through the first piano book at blazing speed with his piano tutor when he was just starting out.

Levitin suggests that Mozart's father, a strict taskmaster and recognized as the best music teacher in Europe, likely kept him practicing long and hard at an early age. Mozart was accomplished early on, completing his first symphony at the age of eight, but his early symphonies not as highly regarded as his later ones. In other words, he still spent the ten thousand hours of practice before he became the Mozart we know and love.

I think this is where hard work can make up for a lack of raw talent. You may not be destined to be a Mozart, and you may not get the same sort of "kick" or feedback from your practice, but I believe that a lot more is in your grasp than you are born with, if you're willing and able to put in the time.

Some people just don't get the same reward from their practice; they either don't feel the same about their progress or do not notice the kind of progress that encourages them. Some of the benefit of talent is the gratification you get as a response to your efforts. I think that is the larger factor in "innate talent." Maybe I am predisposed to this opinion because I have always felt that the brain has a lot of flexibility, and that it is a tool really does shape itself to the tasks you put it to.

This also underscores the importance of the choices we make on how we spend our time, something that an inefficient planner like myself struggles with. It's easy to see the rewards of planning and focus in other areas. Maybe it helps to make better choices if you see those choices as leading toward your ten thousand hours at something.

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Posted by James at August 4, 2008 11:07 AM
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The Sharpe novels are terrific. Formulaic, of course, and you don't want to read them end-to-end (which you can do with Aubrey-Maturin, as there's much more variety in what happens), and there's a ton more blarney in Cornwell than in O'Brian. But they're just fine.

Posted by: Northbound at August 5, 2008 12:30 PM

One other difference (for a slouch like me) is that it was simplicity itself to pick up Sharpe for a plane trip, put it down for months, then pick it up again and finish it off.

As you said -- probably not good to read them end-to-end. Better to have a couple on hand for in between heavier fare.

Posted by: James at August 5, 2008 12:36 PM

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