How much work does it take to master complex domains like playing the violin or writing books? In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that you need 10,000 hours. He even called it “the magic number of greatness.” Phew! That’s a lot! And the bad news is it probably doesn’t guarantee success.
If you’re a mid-career professional who wants to write a book about your expertise, you don’t need to worry about this. If you can write reasonably well, there are coaches and editors who can help you turn out a good product.
Gladwell got it wrong
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell was presenting his take on research by Florida State professor Anders Ericsson who studied violin students at the Berlin Academy of Music. 10,000 was the average number of hours of practice the students there had accumulated by the time they were twenty.
There’s a lot more to mastering a domain than just practicing a lot. Good teaching and coaching help. It also helps if you practice in a way that increases your learning. Here’s what that means if you want to master the craft of writing.
Read a lot
If you want to hit a target, you better know where it is. To learn to write well you need to know what good writing looks and sounds like. The only way to find out is by reading as much good writing as you can. Identify the people who do the best job writing for the same audience you want to reach. Then read their work and analyze it.
Write a lot
You won’t learn to write by reading about writing. You only learn to write by writing. So, write as much as you can for the audience you want to reach. In the beginning, write shorter pieces, like articles and blog posts. Later you can increase your length.
Get good feedback
This can be tricky because an awful lot of people will be willing to “help” you get better. You must identify the people whose feedback will help you grow and develop.
Pick people who know good writing. Good writing here means writing for the kind of audience that you will be writing for. Pick people who can explain to you what you must do to improve. Pick people whom you will listen to. Sometimes friends and relatives will fit the description. Other times you may need to hire a coach or editor to help you.
Reflect on the feedback you get
Take time to review the feedback you get so you can identify the most important things to do differently. This is a moving target.
Ask yourself what you should stop doing. Ask yourself what you should do differently. Ask yourself what you should do next.
Repeat the learning cycle
Write. Get good feedback. Reflect. Write again. Keep working the cycle until you achieve your objective.
How long will that take?
It takes a long time to master the domain. 10,000 hours? Could be.
If you want to become a master electrician, it will take you between six and 10 years in most states. In his book, Creating Minds, Howard Gardner suggests that it takes ten years to master a domain. And guess what? If you work around three hours a day, that’s how long it takes to reach 10,000 hours
The hard part isn’t the big number. The hard part is staying with your project day after day and month after month and year after year. That’s when you discover if you really love the work. If you love it, you’ll want to keep getting better long after you’ve passed that 10,000-hour threshold.
Mastering a domain takes a long time.
Read a lot.
Write a log.
Get good feedback.
Reflect on the feedback and decide what to change next.
Repeat the cycle again and again.