Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, April 14, 2014

Working Enough Hours and The Pursuit of Mastery

We have all heard about the 10,000 hours phenomenon - work 10,000 hours at your craft and you will become great at it. This spurred people into scurrying to rack up the hours - although sometimes identifying what exactly your craft is, in itself is hard.

Recently, I have been reading about mastery, and a growing consensus is that not only is 10,000 hours of practice alone not a guarantee of success, sometimes its not even required. The Click Moment gives examples of successes like Stephanie Meyer, who hit paydirt with her first novel / series Twilight. She wasn't a novelist with 10,000 or even 2,000 hours of writing under her belt before she penned the series that inspired a cultural phenomenon.

The author of the book, Johannson,  steps away from the focus on expertise and instead recommends placing small bets, doing many projects, to increase the likelihood of any one taking off.

The problem with both these perspectives is that to me they seem to be on two ends of the spectrum - whereas I do think there can be more common ground. As Laura Vanderkam pointed out in her book 168 Hours, we need to work enough hours at our "core competencies", or the area that you are trying to achieve mastery in, to take advantage of the economies of scale. As you put in more time, till a certain point, it continues to give you marginal benefit. The added time put in, hones your skills, so that you can get better at what you are doing currently.

You also need to hedge your bets - do many projects rather than put all your eggs in one basket. What this looks like in practice can mean different things for different people - if you're writing a historical novel that takes a year just to research, clearly I am not advocating giving that up in favour of short articles. However, during that time, if you also write a blog about the era you are researching, or short videos on the interesting aspects of your research, you are placing another bet, and allowing the universe to help you make connections for your work in unexpected ways. For someone else, this might mean creating a few short films rather than focusing their energy on one magnum opus.

The point is that by opening yourself to the possibility of doing more projects, hopefully ones that leverage the skills you put in long hours to achieve, you are harnessing the best of both aspects of success - ability and serendipity.

In my case, thinking about this made me realise that I need to focus on the law of diminishing returns - spending untold months that do not necessarily vastly improve a project is probably a clear waste of time - time that could be better spent on working on another interesting project.

What do you think - how should we allocate our time available to the creative pursuits we are attempting to master?
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