Thoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.

10,000 Hours to Mastery

I’ve heard it said from many sources, all stemming from  one study (which I can’t quite track down), that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a subject, skill, or discipline.

True.  And false.

These days, if you want to learn something, you can find a hundred people who offer to teach it to you.  Moreover, they’ll do it in “just ten minutes!” or “three easy sessions!”


It’s plain to anyone’s common sense that mastering something so quickly is impossible.  The very notion of mastery, of deeply understanding a subject beyond its immediate rational tenets, ought to contradict the idea of rapid acquisition of a skill.  These talents take a lifetime to master.  Or, if we accept the 10,000 hours idea, 10 years of about 3 hours a day.

We succumb to those who propose the quick fix because we want to do everything, and because it’s easier to commit to something that takes only 9 hours.  Nine hours are a lot of time right?  Like, 20 TV shows!  I could be watching American Idol right now, but instead I’m learning something, and the sooner that’s over the better.

But there’s another side to the 10k hours idea that doesn’t get talked about.  It’s not discussed because it’s a poison to our desire for instant gratification.  The idea is this:

When we achieve mastery of a subject through years of practice, this mastery allows us to become an initiate in the next level of our pursuit.  The toil of mastery leads us to become a beginner once again; it leads us to hour zero.

An example:  I’ve skied since I could walk, thanks to my parents and to my grandparents.  They unknowingly started me down a path of 10,000 hours that would allow me a mastery so early in my life, which also brings me great joy.  As some have been given the gift of a second language acquired easily in the their childhood, so do I ski.

In one sense, I have mastered skiing through hours of practice.  Better still, much of the practice wasn’t consciously that, but was joy to undertake.  But as I approach my 10,000 hours of skiing, something more becomes clear:

As I am now able to ski anything that lies within the ropes of a ski area boundary, be it steeps, ice, powder, cliffs, etc., I encounter a drive to move beyond the ropes and into the untamed mountains.  My mastery allows me the skills to become a beginner once more.  One thousand skills remain to be acquired.  The next pursuit requires a new approach to time, terrain, and logistics.  Plug the light sockets; I’m a goddamn toddler out there.

So when we say that it takes 10,000 hours to master something, we neglect to say that mastery begets a new sort of beginner.  This idea is worthy of despair if we spend our lives working to arrive at some perfection that provides us with a final satisfaction, but a belief in that place will just lead us back to the Three Easy Sessions!  The reality is that satisfaction that comes from process, from work, from study, and not from arrival.  That gratification is fleeting.

That the ladder we’re climbing has no top isn’t a curse, it’s the greatest blessing a practitioner could ask for.

One Comment

  • Nick Nastase on Jan 17, 2012 Reply

    Mastery comes with diligence, patience, commitment, desire, time, and self-discipline. Go to Pirate Ski Lesson Rap on youtube. The greatest gift a student can give is to surpass the master.

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