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The 10,000 Hours Rule*

Updated: Dec 10, 2022

You have probably heard of "The 10,000 Hours Rule." The short version states that, "ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness."

According to Malcolm Gladwell getting 10,000 hours of practice performing marathon sessions in Hamburg nightclubs allowed the Beatles to become the greatest band in history and Bill Gates' ten thousand hours on his computer, beginning in his teens, set him on his path to becoming, well, Bill Gates. Gladwell claims that "an extraordinarily consistent answer in an incredible number of fields ... you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good."

I'm not so sure.

Bruce Lee once said, "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."

So it's not just practice, it's good practice, correct practice that really matters. Practice the wrong kick 10,000 times and all you'll get is really good at kicking wrong. Put 10,000 hours of study into studying nonsense and you'll become an unwitting master of nonsense. Right?

So, how many hours of "right practice" does it take to become a good mason? Our union, which I was a member of for many years, The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen doesn't consider a mason a Journeyman, a person who knows his trade thoroughly, until a three year formal apprenticeship has been completed. At 40 hours per week, assuming 48 weeks worked per year, for three years, that works out to 5,760 hours of mostly on the job training. He is 57.6 percent of the way to Gladwell's 10,000 hour expert status. But will he become that expert? We know (at least I know) that the great majority will not. For most, at least in the masonry trade, no amount of hours will move them to expert status. Expert status requires something more.

Expert status requires expert level understanding. While a journeyman may have mastered the methods of his teachers, he may not understand the principles behind those methods at all. Many don't. Sad to say, in this profession or in any other, most don't.

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

So, returning to the 10,000 Hour Rule, I think there needs to be an asterisk. It's more a principle (it's good to correctly practice a lot) than a rule, a method for greatness. I'm not alone in this conclusion. I found a study from Princeton University, published July 1st, 2014, in which a meta-analysis was conducted "covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated." The investigators found that "deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions." Their conclusion? "Deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued."

"And less than one percent for professions?" Sadly, with 32 years in the masonry profession, this is exactly what I've seen. There seems to be no correlation between how many years experience someone has and their mastery of this craft. And I think I know why:

"The truth about the average human being is that, regardless of what he claims to want, he will avoid the difficult decisions and the undesirable tasks, even if they represent the path to the outcome of the future he desires. The proven reality is that most people will change their desires, even their values, before they will change their behavior."

Blair Enns

The fact usually is, as soon as someone tries to impress you with the old, worn, "I've been doing this for X years," odds are that he's not likely an expert at all. A true expert knows that it's not the years that make the expert, it's the application of well grasped principles over those years. And, as stated in the work of Dunning and Kruger, "...the more one learns, the less confident they become as they gain metacognition to see the gap between their own knowledge and the knowledge in the field overall." So true experts rarely make claims on their own expertise. As science fiction author Chris Jackson wrote, "...anyone claiming to be an expert on anything, in my opinion, should immediately be viewed with suspicion, or be able to produce a PhD Diploma on the subject he or she is professing to be expert in.”

So, do I consider myself an expert? Well, I'm working on it. I would like to be. I think I am in some areas, but I am aware that I too am susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect. So I tread lightly when it comes to claiming a particular status. I keep an open mind. I'm willing, even eager, to change to a better way, no matter how long I've been doing something. I have Ralf Waldo Emerson's quote about principles and methods up on my wall. I try to go over every job and make notes on what went right to ensure I remember what I have learned (methods and principles), and perform root cause analysis (learned from my military days) to identify what went wrong, when and where, to help prevent repeating errors. I may not be an expert, but I have been actively striving towards that goal for many years. And by the way, by my calculations, I have around 60,000 hours of experience in the masonry profession. Not that it matters...



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