Thursday, March 7, 2013

90 minutes a day...for 18 years

In a prior post, I stated that

"An aspiring clinical psychologist should read at least an hour a day, preferably two hours. This doesn't include assigned reading for class. You should read every day. You should quit reading crap (this blog will steer in the right direction). You should keep a reading journal, in which you record what you read that day, how long you read, and what you learned from your reading."

An hour or two a day, every day, spent in the company of the world's best authors -- there are worse fates. If we apply the "10,000 hour rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, you just might achieve some level of "expertise" in reading and thinking in a little over 18 years. Remember, those 18 years are going to pass by anyway. It's up to you whether you end up just as ignorant at age 40 as you were at age 22 (how sad would that be?). At 20 hours a book, 90 minutes a day will bag you about 27 books a year. That's nearly 500 books over the course of the next 18 years. Very impressive! (Better get started.)

Malcolm Gladwell

The source for Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule is the work of K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues, who published The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance in Psychological Review in 1993. Gladwell seems to have simplified and distorted Ericsson's conclusions (hey, that's how the man earns his living). People prefer the Gladwell version because it makes it sound as if natural talent is irrelevant, so long as you work hard and pay your dues (i.e., put in your deliberate practice). Lots of people love to hear that ability doesn't matter, particularly people with less than elite levels of ability. "I could have been a pro basketball player, if only I had put in my 10,000 hours of deliberate practice prior to the NBA draft." Nonsense, of course.

What I take from the original article is: 1) elite athletes, musicians, and scientists "are completely absorbed in their vocation so as to seriously limit all other activity" (throw away the Xbox); 2) scientists must work 80 hours a week "for an extended time to have a chance of reaching an international level in their field"; 3) the best scientists spend 1-2 hours each morning writing, which helps them shape their theories, make sense of their data, and anticipate the objections of their critics; 4) there is strong evidence for a 10 Year Rule, i.e., no one achieves excellence in a given domain -- becoming a chess grandmaster, mastering a foreign language, composing music, running long distances, playing tennis, conducting scientific research, writing poetry or novels, or making medical diagnoses without about a decade's worth of intense preparatory work. On average, more than 10 years elapses between a performer's first work and his or her best work.*

This is not the same as saying that everyone is capable of producing first-rate work (the Gladwell distortion). After 10 years, your work might be better than it had been, but it still might be far worse than somebody of superior talent who is just starting out.

The good news is in the last sentence:

"Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice...In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity -- practice, thinking, or writing -- requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2 to 4 hours a day, which is a fraction of their time awake" (p. 392).


*Scott Fitzgerald seems to have broken this rule, publishing The Great Gatsby just 5 years after This Side of Paradise, his first novel. But, he also wrote throughout his years at Princeton, so if we count the plays and skits he penned there as part of his apprenticeship period, that 10 year rule seems to hold. Of course, he died of drink at only 44, so his entire life was condensed.

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