The Professional

I’m reading Malcom Gladwell again. This time it’s What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, but it got me thinking about Outliers (which is, unquestionably, one of the most interesting books ever written).  I wish I’d read it before I became a parent. In Outliers, Gladwell discusses the theory of 10,000 hours, which posits that to be an expert, professional – or just simply ultra proficient – in anything, a certain number of hours of practice are expected.

10,000 hours equates to approximately 1.5 years. In that framework, it doesn’t sound like much but nobody does anything nonstop for 24×7, so if you extrapolate it out and said that you’d practice something for a few hours a day, you might never reach expert status. Not surprisingly, this theory has been refuted widely by professionals and observers alike. Some say that it takes much more. Some say it takes much less. What does that tell us? Even with case studies of highly accomplished people like Michael Jordan or world chess experts, this is a theory that has the potential to serve as a mirror through which we can evaluate our own accomplishments, and that makes it downright subjective.

So, of course, it got me thinking about the things we do and – presuming for a second that Gladwell is on to something – how humble we all should be. Here are a few of the more quotidian examples.

Marriage  From the moment you say ‘I do,’ you are a spouse. Every minute of every day. Yet even after 15+ years of being a wife, I am far from expert or, some days, even that good at it.  I think that if I asked my parents, who at the 40+ years married mark, they’d probably say the same thing. But it’s one of those things that are fun to put an effort into perfecting every day. So, a lack of perfection is okay.

Parenting  Here we have the ultimate humility-builder. From the moment your first child hollers his or her way into the world, you’re a parent. Every minute of every day. For some, the process begins before the child arrives through studying books, articles, etc. from those who would call themselves an ‘expert.’ Thing is, you can know all of the should’s in parenting and still not succeed at them all because (here’s the rub) people are involved.

We have to factor in the role of other people in our likelihood of achieving true 10,000 hour proficiency in things like marriage and parenting. That said, I’m going to blame my husband and kids for my shortfalls in those areas. (…she says with an ironic grin. I’m kidding, of course.)

But how about this?

Musical, Artistic or Athletic Prowess  I lump these together because while they look different in performance, they are very similar in preparation. All involve intellect, muscle strength and memory, determination and desire. I was a scholarship musician in college and played in a symphony to help pay for graduate school. Consequently, I spent no less than three hours a day in the practice rooms. That time has passed and I no longer play (shame, shame) but today, I dedicate almost the same degree of focus on performance to my running hobby, training six days a week for an average of 90 minutes each time. In the symphony, I only achieved soloist status or first chair a small handful of times, and then it was because the symphonies were small and not filled with the best oboists in the country. In my racing, I have placed or won only a handful of times, and for the most part, those were small races with less than a couple thousand runners (of all ages and both genders).

The conclusion here is that context and again, people, play a large part in how your natural abilities can be elevated through practice. You can work and practice hours a day, raising your ability to perform consistently at your best to a point where you can feel accomplished but if you’re doing it in the world, chances are (especially if you perform at a high level) others will have practiced and trained just as much, but they might be more naturally gifted so they might get the win.

How about work? Most of us spend what seems like countless hours doing our craft. And many of us call ourselves “professional,” “expert” or “specialist.” But really, what does that mean? Right this moment, are you the best you’ll ever be at your job? Likely not. Is somebody better at your job than you? Probably somewhere. Will you ever have a day when you can say, “yep, I hit the apex”? It’s possible. Awards are good for that kind of reflection.

But it might just be a good thing to hit the 10,000 hour mark and just keep going.

So there’s the conclusion. If we look through the 10,000 hour mirror, I propose that it’s nice to recognize when we have hit that mark only as we’re blasting past it. There always will be people involved in our success, there always will be a context for our success, and there never will be limits to what we might accomplish. If we just keep at it with a sense of humility and recognition for the abilities and dedication of those around us… well, at the very least, we’ll be much more likable experts.

What is your area of expertise? Where are you putting in your 10,000 (plus!) hours?


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