I’ve been trying to implement some professional development time during this quiet spell. So, I’ve started down the path of trying to catch-up on all the podcasts that I’ve bookmarked. In one of the podcasts that I listened to, the guest, a world-renowned architectural photographer, was espousing the value of experience and practice. To make her point, she noted the oft-cited notion that one has to put in 10,000 hours of practice to be considered an "expert" or a "master" in their field. It is a concept that was made popular by Malcom Gladwell, in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, in which he cites the work of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s research found that many of the most advanced violin students at a large music academy had put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice to achieve their level of excellence. Gladwell took this tidbit and ran with it, putting forth the notion that the Beatles put in that amount of time before making it big, as did giants in other fields like technology.
Ericsson objected that the number 10,000 was arbitrary and that Gladwell's statement was taken out of context. Nevertheless, the notion that one needed 10,000 hours to become an expert in one's field, caught on and over the years, it has developed almost a life of its own, partly because it's such a provocative statement that uses a nice, easy-to-remember, round number. However in my humble opinion, it’s complete hogwash! The reason for writing this post is that, with virtually all of us being grounded in our work right now and hopefully using some of the time to practice our craft, I wanted to share some research that’s been done on the importance of practice; specifically, how one practices.
The Key Variables in Learning and Developing Expertise
Aside from the fact that Gladwell’s claim of needing to put in 10,00 hours to become an expert is not scientifically proven, another key reason that his rule of thumb bothers me so, is that it assumes that just putting in the time can make anyone an expert at something. This is simply not true. Steven Covey, who’s written many best-sellers for the business community once said (and I'm paraphrasing): “When someone tells you they have 10 years’ experience, it’s important to find out if they have 10 years’ experience or one year's experience, ten times.” It's an interesting bit of insight/wisdom that speaks to the fact that we must not be seduced into thinking that time spent in practice, is the sole determinant of advancement.
To prove this point, consider research done by Drs. Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli, both of whom are cognitive psychologists. They've studied chess players who’ve been deemed to be masters in the sport. They’ve found tremendous variability in the amount of time it took them to reach “master” status. According to their research, the time ranged from 728 hours, all the way to 16,120 hours! Other research that I’ve found says that practice time makes up only 20-25% of the variability in determining "expertise" and that there are other significant variables at play. First, is one’s age when actually starting a given endeavor. For instance, it’s generally accepted that there is a window, early in childhood, in which it’s easier for human-beings to learn a complex task, such as language acquisition. Genetics is also a variable. For example, research has shown that there’s a far higher correlation in artistic skills in identical twins vs. fraternal twins. This leads me to the main thrust of this post.
It’s Not About How Much You Practice; It’s About How You Practice
So, what’s the key? Research done by Dr. Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist out of Stanford University, found that “deliberate experimentation” in one’s practice is vital when trying to develop expertise and mastery. Consider that in proper scientific methodology, researchers are supposed to form a hypothesis, test it, examine the results, and from that analysis, develop a new hypothesis that can be tested.
In other words, we should be practicing with purpose, keeping in mind the importance of experimentation. This can take many forms. For example:
Anyway, the possibilities are endless, as they say! In any case, I hope this post has been helpful to you in thinking through how you practice and, hopefully, will inform your Pro-D time. I’d love to hear about any additional “experiments” that you’re trying/have tried in your photography in order to get better. I’m sure our community would benefit from this sort of sharing!
Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.