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Debunking the 10 000 hours myth

I expect many people reading this post will be at least vaguely familiar with the “10 000 Hours” concept. It’s taken from a 1993 study and was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. In essence, it’s become the mantra of those who value hard work over talent, as it states that in order to be world class at anything (music, sports, art etc) you need to have banked at least 10 000 hours of deliberate practice. The popular interpretation is that what we often assume to be talent, is in fact the result of years of practice. This leads to lots of endearing stories about hard luck kids who spent every evening after school sinking hoop after hoop in an inner city basketball court, or the musician who retreats to her room for hours each evening and tirelessly works on scales.

Vittorio Brumotti - you don't get this good without 10 000 hours of practice
Our old friend Vittorio Brumotti, who I suspect has put in at least 10 000 hours on the bike over the years

Now before I talk about my own experiences with the 10 000 hour principle, I ought to add a few caveats. First, the number itself. I’ll admit that like most people I’ve not read the original study, but I have read “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein. I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the concepts of nature vs nurture, as it’s one of the best explorations I’ve ever read. One thing that David brings up early on is that the magic 10 000 hour figure is only an average. Some cohorts in the study achieved “world class” status in as few as 3500 hours, and some took as long as 40 000. The key concept that gets overlooked seems to be “deliberate practice”.

This is where I come in. Let’s make a conservative estimate, and say that an average shoot takes 5 hours. I’m well aware this is an almost random number, as some shoots can take 12 or more, and some just a couple, but I’ve got to find a middle ground somewhere. I’ve also overlooked how much time I spend around shoots on pre and post production and a thousand other things.

Since I started archiving everything I shot digitally in 2004 I’ve done more than 1600 shoots. Add to this the 3 years I was shooting between giving up assisting in 2001 and going digital in 2004, the 3 years I spent assisting, the 3 years studying for a degree at college, and the 2 years before that when I was at the local paper, night school, and printing in my parent’s outside toilet, and I almost certainly passed the 10 000 hours mark a while ago.

Does this therefore make me world class by default?

Far from it, sadly. My belief and experience is that it’s definitely a case of quality over quantity. I have spent large chunks of my career going through the motions, making very little progress, and simply churning the work out. The biggest factor in making these hours worthwhile is having some form of feedback system and making good use of it. I can hold my hand up and admit that not only have I made mistakes in my career (who hasn’t) but I’ve made the same mistakes more than once, and that’s not very bright. In some cases it has taken me YEARS to learn some lessons. I can think of stages in my career where my work has hardly got any better, and all I’ve done is seemingly pay the bills, and periods when practically every shoot I do ends up in the portfolio. They key difference seems to be how well I made use of feedback.

Girl Gains - Multipower
The analogy between learning in photography and physical training is pretty obvious, but we all know you don’t get fit in 5 minutes, any more than being good at photography is simply the result of buying an expensive camera.

Feedback takes 2 forms – short term and long term – they’re not perfect definitions, but they’re all I’ve got for now! Short term feedback can be as simple as taking a shot, chimping the back of the camera, and trying to work out why the image is far too dark. Longer term feedback is more esoteric, and for me consists of identifying trends in my work, pinning down habits and ideas, and then improving them. For this I use a variety of creative tools such as the logbook, the No Excuses exercise, and my blackboxes. There’s a definite link between the frequency with which I use tools like this, and how much progress I make with work getting in the portfolio. Conversely, periods when I’ve ignored and neglected this sort of feedback have been the same periods when I’ve found myself treading water.

Returning to the idea of 10 000 hours, I’ll stick my neck out and say that in one respect the bar has been slightly lowered. What I mean by this is that the short feedback loop is much shorter than it was when I was starting out. Nowadays if you’re trying to learn something technical, you can experiment, and you’ll see exactly what happens on the screen each time you change something. Back when we only had film, you would make careful notes during a shoot, and then try and match them up hours or days afterwards to the images, a much longer feedback loop, with more potential for error. Oh you kids have it easy these days, back in my day Father used to beat us to within an inch of our lives, feed us gravel, and send us to sleep in a paper bag! Paper bag, oooh, luxury, OUR father used to flay our skins off and feed us to lions! Sorry, I’m getting sidetracked.

Golf Instruction
Yet another analogy – no-one expects you to just rock up a week after picking up a golf club and win a major tournament on talent alone. You will need to practice. Quite a lot.

My advice would be, don’t get hung up on the numbers. 5 hours of practice with effective feedback, is easily worth 10 where you just churn images out. By the same token I’ve learnt in the past 18 months how valuable planning can be, and that an hour or two at the start of a project can reap huge dividends over time. I’m not about to start delving into the realms of Deep Work, the 4 hour work week et al, although I’d highly recommend them to anyone in self-employment. Suffice to say, my experience is that not all hours are interchangeable, and working with good feedback, when you can allow yourself to focus and avoid distractions, will get you to a state of mastery in a much shorter time.

The simple truth is, it’s both nature and nurture. More practice makes a massive difference, but only if that practice is deliberate. Talent will only get you so far, and practice will only get you so far, but combine talent with deliberate practice, and you can really make progress.

(If you liked this, you may be interested in my thoughts on the Four Stages of learning, and Non-linear learning)

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