Making it look easy

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of master associated with being a world-class expert—in anything, “writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. “In writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

– Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Canada’s favorite skating pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir scored Olympic gold again. I’m not much for watching sports, but I find something captivating about the blend of technical athleticism and artistry that is ice dancing. I watch them with some degree of dissonance between my rational awareness that they have invested hours and months and years in grueling preparation to get to this moment, and the perception-in-the-moment that they make it look easy.

I can’t skate. Not because I lacked opportunity to learn. I had ice skates as a kid. I even lived a short walk from a duck pond that was converted to a public rink every winter. I recall going skating with my family periodically. I managed to stagger around the ice with sufficient coordination to survive my cousin’s childhood birthday parties and the occasional winter sports day in elementary school. My one disastrous roller rink experience is proof of my failure to transfer whatever minimal ice skating skills I did acquire.

The last time I remember being on ice skates was in university. It was an outing of a student group I belonged to – at that very duck pond I had skated on as a child. I remember that for a fleeting moment I actually felt like I was getting the hang of it. I was just starting to progress from a cautious shuffle to something resembling a glide and thinking that maybe, just maybe, if I actually put some effort into it, I could someday get to a point where I would be comfortable on skates. Then I wiped out.

I’m willing to bet that Scott and Tessa have fallen a thousand times each for every time I ever laced up a pair of skates. In fact, as I learned in this lovely TED Talk, Tessa fought her way back up onto the ice several times after painful injuries and multiple surgeries and had to relearn much of her technique to accommodate her overtaxed muscles. If you’re going to do anything for ten thousand hours you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to do it badly before you get to the point where you can do it well.

Still, even if I had persisted with skating to some level of mastery, it is unlikely my arthritic knees would ever had taken me to an Olympic podium. I don’t really think that’s how the principle of ten thousand hours of practice works. I don’t think that you can just pick something at random and become a world-class expert on the sole basis of logging rehearsal hours. As Levitin suggests, not all practice is created equal. Plus, there has to be a place in the mix for that mysterious quality we call talent.

I don’t know for sure if I’ve spent ten thousand hours writing throughout my lifetime, but I expect I have come close. Do I think of myself as a “world-class expert writer?” Absolutely not! There are lots of writing spins and jumps left for me to master, if only I can manage to carve out enough hours on the “practice rink.” I suppose that’s one reason for my return to blogging.

When I listen to Scott and Tessa speak, I am struck more than anything with how comfortable they are with their expertise. They have proven themselves the best at what they do, and in talking about their accomplishments there is no hint of either boastfulness or false modesty. They know what they are good at, they know how hard they worked to get good at it, and they own it.

Unlike ice dance, writing is not typically a spectator sport, but once in a while my work places me in boardrooms with large screens, essentially writing for an audience. I was helping someone write something at work earlier this week and, as sometimes happens, there was a moment when I was able to take a cluster of complicated sentences and render them into a single clear statement. As also sometimes happens, someone commented on my skill. When this happens, I’m always surprised that I have, in that moment, taken this thing that I continue to  work so hard to master, and somehow made it look easy.

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