The pursuit of expertise

More than ever I think the likelihood of making a living as a musician is vanishingly small. And I am at best agnostic about the idea that music (or any other art) is its own justification—money is far from the only reason to pursue skills in an art, but there still ought to be a reason for it, one that can help you decide whether the pursuit is worthwhile. So why do I think it is a fine thing when I see someone with a burning desire to become an excellent musician?

Bob Lefsetz talks a lot about one of Malcolm Gladwell’s claims, that it requires 10,000 hours of concentrated practice to develop expertise in an area. And then Lefsetz had dinner with Gladwell one night [emphasis added]:

And then dinner was finished.  And I had an internal debate.  Should I ask my one big question, the one that had been haunting me for months, whether you were [doomed] if you switched gears and entered a new territory, after devoting 10,000 hours to one?

I took the risk.

The change was stunning.  Suddenly, this wiry Canadian turned into "Malcolm Gladwell".  The gentleman you see on television, the confident storyteller.  Malcolm said you got credit, that the hours were transferable, because those who devoted this amount of time to a pursuit were self-selecting.


In other words, it’s hard, and lonely, to put in 10,000 hours.  You’ve seen the Olympic athletes on TV, they send a crew to shoot footage prior to the quadrennial games and the sportsman or woman is running down an abandoned highway in the middle of summer, shvitzing up enough sweat to fill a swimming pool.  If you want to be great, you have to not only work, but sacrifice. You can’t spend endless hours somnambulant in front of the TV screen, you can’t go out partying every night.  You’ve got to dedicate yourself to your pursuit.

It’s not the mastery itself that is critical, it is that someone has learned to master a skill.

It’s well known that it doesn’t matter much what computer language a programmer cuts his teeth on; a good programmer can be fluent in a new language in a week or less if necessary. In learning the first language the programmer (a good one, anyway) has learned much more than the language. The language itself is a small part of the mastery.

I’ve watched in amazement as Chris has picked up an unfamiliar stringed instrument (mandolin, tenor guitar) and within minutes stated picking out melodies and forming  chords. I’ve watched in amazement as he puts his guitar in an unfamiliar tuning and within minutes begin to play, and soon after that begin to find new sounds. Most of what I know how to do on an instrument is rote, not expertise at all. His knowledge of the guitar is really a knowledge of music, which he is able to translate onto any instrument at hand.

I agree with Gladwell in the bolded text above that experts are self-selecting. Putting in 10,000 hours is not a magic ticket to expertise, but every expert has the 10,000 hours in his background because only those with the potential to become experts are dedicated enough to put in the hours.

But I think experts are at least partially made, that the inclination to develop expertise needs to be carefully cultivated. Which is why I think it is important to encourage the pursuit of expertise in whatever area a child is most inclined, even if the resulting expertise may not be especially valuable in today’s world. The task itself is very hard, and might be abandoned when any number of obstacles are encountered. If you can find a subject where your child is eager to invest the 10,000 hours, and then guide them safely and wisely through the process over the many years it will take, you will have done a fine thing. The mastery itself may or may not be valuable. But the ability to become a master will be invaluable.


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