It’s been almost 6 years since I first began writing this blog. If you dare to troll through the early archives there’s no doubt that the writing in there is of lower quality, much of it to do with me still trying to find my voice in this medium. Now, some 1300+ posts later, the hours I’ve invested in developing this blog my writing has improved dramatically and every day I feel far more confident in my abilities to churn out a blog post that meets a certain quality threshold. I attribute much of that to my dedication to writing at least once a day, an activity which has seen me invest thousands of hours into improving my craft. Indeed I felt that this was something of an embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule at work, something that newly released research says isn’t the main factor at play.
The study conducted by researchers at Princeton University (full text available here) attempted to discern just how much of an impact deliberate practice had on performance. They conducted a meta analysis of 150 studies that investigated the relationship between these two variables and classified them along major domains as well as the methodology used to gather performance data. The results show that whilst deliberate practice can improve your performance within a certain domain (and which domain its in has a huge effect on how great the improvement is) it’s not the major contributor in any case. Indeed the vast majority of improvements are due to factors that reside outside of deliberate practice which seemingly throws the idea of 10,000 hours worth of practice being the key component to mastering something.
To be clear though the research doesn’t mean that practice is worthless, indeed in pretty much every study conducted there’s a strong correlation between increased performance and deliberate practice. What this study does show though is that there are factors outside of deliberate practice which have a greater influence on whether or not your performance improves. Unfortunately determining what those factors are was out of the scope of the study (it’s only addressed in passing in the final closing statements of the report) but there are still some interesting conclusions to be made about how one can go about improving themselves.
Where deliberate practice does seem to help with performance is with activities that have a predictable outcome. Indeed performances for routine activities show a drastic improvement when deliberate practice is undertaken whilst unpredictable things, like aviation emergencies, show less improvement. We also seem to overestimate our own improvement due to practice alone as studies that relied on people remembering past performances showed a much larger improvement than studies that logged performances over time. Additionally for the areas which showed the least amount of improvement due to deliberate practice it’s likely that there’s no good definition for “practice” within these domains, meaning it’s much harder to quantify what needs to be practiced.
So where does this leave us? Are we all doomed to be good at only the things which our nature defines for us, never to be able to improve on anything? As far as the research shows no, deliberate practice might not be the magic cure all for improving but it is a great place to start. What we need to know now is what other factors play into improving performances within their specific domains. For some areas this is already well defined (I can think of many examples in games) but for other domains that are slightly more nebulous in nature it’s entirely possible that we’ll never figure out the magic formula. Still at least now you don’t worry so much about the hours you put in, as long as you still, in fact, put them in.
Its almost trite to talk about Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers these days as it seems everyone is familiar with the key concept of mastery requiring a certain level of practice, on the order of 10,000 hours. Indeed the idea even spurred people on to do their own experiments to see how true the rule rang to life and the results of said experiments shows that there’s something to it, even if the hours required may vary wildly from person to person. I have unwittingly been participating in my own versions of these experiments for the past few years and a new milestone came up yesterday that I had completely forgot about.
I hit post 1000.
It seems like a lifetime ago when I hit that milestone that every blogger seems to celebrate publicly: the 100th post. Reading it again it’s clear to see how far I’ve come as the post is littered with smilies (which look horrendous to me now), the tone is completely different and it’s clear that I’m writing it directly to the only people I know are reading, I.E. my friends. Whilst I can’t claim that I’m some kind of blogging superstar now I do know my reach extends much further now than it did back then with my daily readership exceeding that of my monthly numbers back then. Back then however it felt like I had made some real substantial progress in my quest to become a blogger but upon reflection of my 1000th post it feels like I’m just starting out all over again.
Most of my posts don’t take that long to write, comparatively speaking, with most of them going from concept to draft to published piece in the space of 1~2 hours with more than a few being way above that. Putting that in perspective I’m probably about 2000 hours into the requisite 10,000 to obtaining mastery which, at my current rate, puts me at mastery some time in the mid 2020s. There are ways of accelerating this of course (I’d say that my experience writing for LifeHacker probably counts for 2x~3x the hours I spent on it due to the amount I learned whilst working for them) and I jump at the chance whenever they come my way but it’s still daunting to think that I’ve invested almost 5 years at this point and I’m only 20% into my journey.
Does that make me want to stop? Hell no! The opportunities that have opened up to me as a result of my work-daily rantings have been some of the most exciting things I’ve ever done and the more I blog the more those things seem to keep on happening to me. Whilst I’ve never attained the kind of overnight success that I had envisioned coming my way one day the slow and steady build up just never seems to stop. It can be disheartening some times when you write something you believe is brilliant and inspired only to have it fall on its face but, as the past has shown, I’m a terrible judge of what will be popular and for that I blame those little multiplying haters in my head.
It’s comforting to know that people I respect highly struggle with the same things I do, even if our medium of choice is different. I’ve always had this disembodied version of myself hanging over my shoulder, constantly critiquing everything that I’m doing. In all honesty it’s a great thing and it’s responsible for a large part of why I’ve enjoyed so much success in other aspects of my life but it can be a real detriment, especially when it collides with my almost OCD level compulsions. It hasn’t gotten any easier as the years have gone by but I’ve developed a whole bunch more tools in order to deal with it. That’s probably the biggest insight I’ve had into this whole 10,000 hour thing as it’s more about understanding and overcoming your shortcomings more than anything else.
Unlike my myriad of other hobbies I feel that blogging is one that will stick around for good, just like gaming and software development did before them. It’s something that I’ve made a heck of a lot of progress in and the idea of giving it up just doesn’t seem to make sense like it did back when my daily viewer count was in the single digits. Whether or not it’ll morph into more or less than what it currently is however remains to be seen but I’m sure as I keep chipping away at that 10,000 hour goal more good things will come of it. I might not ever become the blogging starlet that I thought I was going to be all those years ago but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t been a blast regardless.