The journey from novice to competent to excellent: 10,000 hours and counting

by Anna Blanch on November 3, 2009

The Journey from novice to competent to excellent!

Moving from being a student to being a member of the professoriate is a long journey. In some ways one shouldn’t endeavour to grow out of being a student of your field. There is always something to learn – always new pedagogical techniques to consider, and new research being published. A bit like life really, except this whole Academia thing is supposed to be life.

Daniel Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music talks about the theory of 10,000 hours:

… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours per day, or twenty hours per week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. 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. 

At 40 hours a week, 10 000 hours equates to 250 weeks, or 4.8 years. Funnily enough, that’s about the length of time it takes someone to get a PhD. Convenient? not so much.
I’m two years down and three to go. Do i feel half way there? no way.
My immediate connection to thinking about the relationship between the 10 000 hours and academia is one that Dan Reid (Addenda & Errata) has also considered:
that’s the way it is with writing or editing. I don’t recall hearing of “the theory of 10,000 hours,” though its principle is one I’ve thought about often. It takes time to get good at anything of real value, and the subconscious absorption of situations, patterns, outcomes and what not amounts to a value gained that is more than the sum of its parts. You look at a manuscript and say to yourself, “This just isn’t right.” As an editor, it can be the hardest thing to come up with the words to communicate to an author why this is so—and to say it helpfully, not abrasively or deflatingly. You might want to say, “It’s not right. Believe me. Do it again. And maybe try this.” But often a more helpful way is to rewrite a paragraph and say, “I mean like this.” On the way to 10,000 hours, it helps to have some models to follow.

But it also applies to academic work—and to academic editors too. One way to look at the Ph.D. is to think of it in terms of the 10,000-hour theory. At root it’s a way of trying to get some kind of leverage on whether a person has “10,000 hours” of disciplined experience in making considered judgments in a subject area—in its methods, history, context, texts and ideas more generally. We might think of it as a scaffolding around the project that is their mind. It alone does not guarantee an outcome –we still need to probe and examine the foundation, the building materials, the integrity of the structure etc. Or discarding that metaphor as it starts to fail, it tells us that a person has served a (10,000-hour) disciplined apprenticeship under so and so. Again, no guarantees. But there is some reasonable expectation that they will have developed some important intellectual instincts in the field (depending, of course, on their mentors!) that we value and need.

 The metaphor of a journey is apt then, as I fumble from novice to competent, hoping to one scale the heights of excellence.

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