June 11, 2013

Essay: On putting in the hours

Contrary to our cultural belief in natural talents, popular science is catching on to the idea that the path to success may be linear. And it may require no more than hard work.

The claim (most popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) is that there’s no such thing as a natural talent - talents are achieved through hard work, and it is never too late for anyone to start down that path. What seems like talent is a direct result of the hours a person has put in to that task and practiced it.

A reason this thesis may be gaining popularity now is that many in my generation grew up playing video games. Playing video games has influenced many people’s view of real-life mastery: it taught us that any skill is can be learned with enough patience. In most games it’s called training, which is x improvement per x time invested. The more I live the more I seem to improve with the hours I put into real-life ventures, just as my experience bar scales up linearly with the time I spend in a game. Nothing is impossible to learn in a video game, and I’m starting to get a hunch that, with enough practice, most things IRL aren’t either.

What’s the goal or the prize at the end of this path? When does one achieve true mastery? The figure 10’000 hours gets bandied around a lot. This is the equivalent of 3 hours’ practice every day, for 10 years. This is how you measure the stock of a pilot: flight time in hours.

Focus is essential to gaining the 10’000 hours of experience. Focusing on only a few select activities to apply your time to will make the difference between world-class and the hobbyist who only dabbled.  Many people lose focus with all the distractions in modern life. This is like having skills only half-finished in a video game. Maybe we shouldn’t be spreading ourselves too thin. Maybe we should be following through, to increase our chances of arriving at 10’000 hours (if we even want to achieve mastery in something, that is). Maybe we should choose carefully and then follow them to the end of 10’000 hours, while saying No to all else.

On another note, maybe games have even helped reduce some people’s fear of failure, or Game Over. Though it is less temporary in real life than in games, we have been conditioned to be disproportionately afraid of it. But in both real life and game, failure is a necessary part of the learning process. Image by Vermeer.



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