Do you need 1,000 hours of practice for everything?

Here's a shortcut to mastering any art, any sport, any knowledge.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a true virtuoso at something.

A more scientific approach discussed in The Talent Code suggests you need to put in a requisite number of hours to develop sheathes of myelin around the synapses in your brain to get better and faster at an activity.

The latest research suggests you need 1,000 hours of practice to become competent at something, 5,000 hours to be a master, and 10,000 to be a virtuoso.

There has to be a shortcut.

Did you put in 1,000 hours of practice?

Suppose you take a biology class for a year. Let's assume you're never absent, that you spend 5 hours a week in class, and that all of this classtime is fully instructive with no goofing around. Let's assume you always spend two hours a day doing biology homework and studying.

That's a lot to assume, but let's see where it gets us.

The school year lasts about 36 weeks, not counting vacations. At an hour a day of class, Monday through Friday, and  two hours a day of study, that's 3 hours a day or fifteen hours a week for 36 weeks.

At that rate you'll have 540 hours of biology, barely half what you need in order to be competent.

But surely you've gained something from all that study. You understand a lot about the way your body works. You can explain why your hair looks like uncle George's, name the parts of a cell, and predict what will happen over the next year on that hillside that was burned in a wildfire over the summer. You have a solid grounding that you can build upon in college and beyond.

How can you do all that in less than 1,000 hours?

Your toothbrush is your sword

The truth is, you're learning even when you're not studying. If you're interested in soccer, you'll be thinking about it while you brush your teeth. When you're just standing around you'll kick a hackey sack or think about the proper form. You'll run through plays and techniques while you're waiting in line at the cafeteria.

More importantly, you'll bring soccer into everything else you study. When you do geometry you'll be calculating the ratio of the area of the goal to the area of the field. You'll think of the angle at which the ball can be kicked. You'll be putting in your soccer hours even while you put in history or math.

You can harness this natural tendency. Put it to good use.

I study a Japanese sword school. My instructor quoted a popular saying that, "A brown-belt holds his toothbrush like it's a sword."

We don't have brown belts in my school, but I got the picture. When you're in the learning stage, the subject you study spills over into everything else. When I walk around my classroom, I place my feet as if I were about to draw the katana at close range. I've become hyper-aware of the muscles in my ankles and how I use them. I even cut myself sometimes when I brush my teeth.

It might not happen until I'm 50 years old, but I'm going to be a blackbelt. And that's just where the real learning begins.

Competence doesn't mind sharing

On the other hand, I'd like to know a lot more about ancient Rome and the Mediterranean in general. But I'm not willing to put in the time to become an expert. So what do I do?

I think about the meanings behind the Greek and Latin names of different species. When I hear the news, I think of historical parallels that Livius might have written about. I look for case studies in science that come from the Mediterranean.

Bit by bit, my knowledge grows, and yet it doesn't take 1,000 hours of practice. I've linked it to other activities that are already a part of my daily life.

The 1,000 hour take-away

Think about it this way: If you really want to be one of the top people in one particular ability, work on it nonstop every spare moment.

But if you just want to be good at something, mentally connect it with the things you're already doing.

You'll quite literally be competent in no time.

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