Malcolm Gladwell introduced a lot of people to the “10,000-Hour Rule,” based on research by Anders Ericsson. The idea is that people who excel in any field from sports to music to business reach a world-class level after roughly 10,000 hours of practice. Outliers was a best-seller. I’m sure I’m not the only person who read it and became captivated by the idea that excellence comes from discipline, not just innate talent.
I put the book down and thought, “Okay, how long is 10,000 hours?” It turned out to be not quite three years’ worth of 8-hour days. Another way to break it down was 12 years of 2-hour practice sessions, which was much more manageable. At my age this was not a problem. Clearly I had the time to devote to reaching world-class performance at something. But what? That question sprang up of its own accord. What would I want to be that good at? Anything?
Nothing immediately cropped up except another question. “What about… 1,000 hours? Or… 100 hours?” Surely 100 hours would be enough to make noticeable progress in something. That would be a good start to test out the hypothesis. When I thought of 100 hours, something did come to mind. Cooking. I was a newlywed, and my cooking skills were somewhere between ‘beginner’ and ‘sexist joke.’ I looked to my bookcase full of unused cookbooks and formulated a plan.
As it turned out, there was a huge improvement in my cooking in more like 10 hours. I learned about mise en place and wondered how I ever managed without it. As a novice, I would turn on the burner and try to prepare all the ingredients in the order they appeared, not always realizing I didn’t even have everything the recipe required until I was halfway in. I started noticing patterns in recipes, such as which herbs and spices were added at the beginning and which aromatics went in last. I started understanding how much cooking time differed for different vegetables. By the time I hit 100 hours, I was beginning to be able to throw together a decent meal without using a recipe. At 1,000 hours, I wrote my own little cookbook.
One criticism of the 10,000-Hour Rule is that hours are not enough. Excellence takes focus on improving the weakest areas, competent coaching, and sometimes traits like height or age or finger span that can’t be gotten through time commitment. We do want to keep in mind that it’s more important to accept critique than to stubbornly pound away at the same mistakes over and over.
It’s encouraging to realize that sometimes only a few evenings of dedicated effort may lie between us and a tantalizing new skill. Being good at something is really satisfying. We don’t necessarily have to worry about being ‘great’ when ‘good’ is good enough. As it turns out, being willing to put in a few hours here and there can make a lot of interesting things much more accessible.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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