Thursday, March 26, 2009

The 10,000 hour theory part II

So, when I first heard that 10,000 hours are required to truly master something, it was hard to really understand the magnitude of that number. And of course, this is the kind of idea I naturally gravitate to because I've always wanted to be a master at something (don't all of us want that?), but I never really, truly understood what it took to get there.

For the longest time I wanted to play in the NBA, or at least college, and I would watch these sports movies and see these guys putting in some pretty heroic efforts. But you know how movies are, they make everything look much, much easier than it really is. But sufficiently fooled, I would try to replicate some of that. During the long, boring summer breaks, I would go with my dad to the church (he was employed as a custodian there), and I would shoot baskets at the hoop for 8 solid hours. But I would never do this consistently. And when I joined pick-up games at the park, I always played a bit timid. I matured late, and I was always the smallest guy out on the court. And I never really had proper coaching. All in all, maybe I accumulated 1000 hours of practice? Maybe.

I talked to my wife about her history of music playing. She started piano when she was 3 I think. She played consistently through high school, peaked in college, eventually getting two music degrees. A rough estimate, based on the numbers she gave me, I'm guessing around 5000 to 6000 hours of practice.

Well, with these numbers in my head, this morning I gathered my two kids and here's the dialogue:

Me: "Do you want to master something?"
Kids: "Yes!" - with enthusiasm.
Me to oldest daughter: "Ok, you have to pick one thing because there's not time enough for two, how about violin?" - she already has a good start on that.
Oldest daughter: "Yes!"
Me to son: "Ok, how about you pick piano?"
Son: "Yes!"

So, maybe I need to write up a contract and have them sign their names obligating them to what they agreed to. Something tells me they really have no idea.

Well, kids, here's your life for the next almost 20 years, don't worry, someday you'll thank me for it:

A Sample Practice Schedule

Hours Per DayDays Per WeekWeeks Per YearYearsHours of PracticeCumulative Hours So FarAge Range
0.554522252255 to 6
1.554526751293.759 to 10
1.755452787.52081.2511 to 12
2545313503431.2513 to 15
3545213504781.2516 to 17
45456540010181.2518 to 24

So, according to the book, Mozart mastered piano composing (and playing?) by his teens, Lang Lang also mastered piano playing in his teens, Michael Jordan and other NBA players mastered their sport by the time they entered college, Bill Gates mastered programming by 18. These are examples of folks who accumulated 10,000 hours of practice much faster than the above table.

In my opinion, this table is the absolute maximum I could expect out of my kids without totally crossing the lines of abuse. But if they really catch the drive its conceivable they could obsess themselves into 4 to 5 hours a day of practice completely on their own accord. I think that's what happened with Bill Gates. With Mozart and Lang Lang their parents were borderline abusive.

Practicing 2-3 hours a day through high school is incredibly aggressive as it is, and I think by 16 they would have to decide they really want to pursue this long term to put this kind of effort in. From ages 18-24, they'll basically be committing to a degree in this area and 4 or even 5 hours a day of practice seems pretty reasonable to me.

Some final points, I think its pretty important that kids do not work while in high school or even college. I think its much more important to devote themselves to their craft, especially in college, and they will have the opportunity to more than pay pack their loans once they graduate...

The weird thing about all of this, is that they have to start so young if they want to master their field by the time they finish college. But, this is ideal. If they decide that in high school, they really have different interests, they can stop and restart the process in another field. While they didn't really master violin (or piano), they've gotten pretty good.

Anyway, just some rambling thoughts.


H said...

Oh Scott, this is such a riot! Only you would make a graph and suggest a contract. I loved the discussion and how straightforward you were about them picking one thing. You do have to be honest with kids these days. :)

Davey said...

I've been meaning to post on this topic so i'm glad you revisited it. I haven't read Gladwell's new book but I did read a number of reviews as I know his work and like to keep up on these kinds of things.

The first thing you'll find when you read the book is that it is not a defense of the 10,000 hour postulate, it is really a defense of social determinism not human potential. The reason bill gates mastered programming when he was young is because he was one of only a handful of children in the world with access to a computer. There is a disproportionate number of people born the same year as him in the upper echelons of the computer industry. Same as a disproportionate number of pro hockey players born in the beginning of the year. Thy are the oldest, biggest, strongest when they are in little league so they get the most attention from coaches leading ultimately to a pro career.

Gladwell is argueing that it is circumstances largely beyond our control that create the opportunity to get our 10,000 hours. So if you want to provide that opportunity to your kids that's great but of course who really wants to stay up all night learning programming languages for 10,000 hours? Some people, but not everybody. Here's hoping your kids decide it's them because contrary to Gladwells thesis I suspect that people who want 10,000 get it at tremendous personal expense in addition to serendipitous social circumstances.

That said here's a quote I read recently from the psychologist Mihaly csikszentmihalyi, he said "Even when children are taught music, the usual problem often arises: too much emphasis is placed on how they preform, and too little on what they experience...Parents who push their children to excell at the violin are generally not interested whether the children are actually enjoying the playing; they want their child to play well...By doing so, they succeed in perverting music into the opposite of what it was designed to be: they turn it into a source of psychic disorder."

I'm definitely not saying this is you Scott, I'm sure it's something you think about too. I just read it this morning and thought it was salient. He goes on to argue that music was designed to order the chaotic internal world characteristic of the human condition, but that stressors like parental pressure can distract them from the music's true value, which would compromise anyone's desire to get their 10,000 hours. He points out that that's why teenagers listen to music so much, because of they are just entering the chaotic world from the relative peace of childhood.

tempe turley said...


I just posted a part III, but I agree with you, but I think pushing your kids to get 4000-5000 hours by 18 is not unreasonable. I also think its practically impossible for a child to get there on their own. They need some parental intervention.

But getting to 10,000 hours is not healthy unless the child has some internal obsession, then I wouldn't mind accommodating that, but I would never push them toward it.

Sara said...

Thank you for the voice of reason, Davey. ;-) The other day I asked Elizabeth if she wanted to practice piano and she said, "No, Daddy said I had to choose violin!"

Davey said...

Also, if you read Gladwell's book, you should know that he is a silver tongued devil. While I love his work the truth is that he can take certain liberties as a journalist that a scholar wouldn't be able to. He's no scholar but he redeems himself with creativity and presentation.

I'm sure you've got the critical thinking skills to add proper context to his work.