Why is Olympic gold medalist, Shaun White, affectionately known as the “flying tomato,” the only skateboarder to land a front-side, heel-flip, 540 body varial or Armadillo? How long should it take Cam Newton to learn the Carolina Panthers’ offense? Why did Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Horowitz become virtuosos on their respective instruments when others who practiced just as hard did not?
Even if you control for unusual endowment or aptitude, world-class performers clearly learn faster than others. Can the rest of us nongeniuses learn faster too? Most people would say yes and I agree. I dare say we haven’t reached terminal learning velocity in any field. How much faster can we learn? I’m convinced that increasing learning speed is one of the great frontiers of our time. For many reasons, we need to bring people to competency, if not mastery, more quickly.
The other day, I was in the gym rebounding balls for my 14-year-old son. As I stood below the basket dishing the ball back to him while he worked on his shot, I asked him who the best three-point shooter in the NBA was. He said Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics. I asked him how long it would take to be able to shoot like Ray Allen. Would it take 10,000 hours? — which is roughly equivalent to 15 years of year-round basketball practice and game time. My son’s response was telling, “I don’t see why it needs to take that long.” My sentiments exactly.
A group of psychologists — including most notably the late Benjamin Bloom and more recently Anders Ericsson — has done empirical studies to figure out what it takes to achieve mastery in a particular field. The results are fairly consistent. It takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve world-class performance in almost any field of endeavor. This 10,000-hour rule, made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, "Outliers," focuses on a threshold-time requirement.
So can we break the so-called 10,000-hour rule? Ericsson tells us that not only do we need the 10,000 hours, but we also need to engage in “deliberate practice,” which he defines as “considerable, specific and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well.” So genius is a combination of natural endowment, outside support and deliberate practice. But can we make our deliberate practice even better and cut into that 10,000-hour requirement? Can we become even quicker studies?
There are several concepts that relate to the concept of deliberate practice, such as flow state, meta-cognition, executive function, effective effort and high engagement. All of these refer more or less to the supervisory attention or cognitive control system of a human being. What researchers find is that if a person can stay focused by regulating impulses, that person learns faster. In other words, if you can develop the discipline to avoid distractions, you can assimilate information and develop skills more quickly.
What orthodoxies must we discard in order to come to competency faster? Two thoughts: First, the dominant culture of teaching and coaching in our culture is too directive. It often breeds dependency. We over-direct and over-teach. There’s too much telling and advocacy, and not enough questioning and aided discovery. It’s often the coach or teacher that’s the limiting factor. Result: We don’t learn how to learn. We look to the teacher, coach, boss or parent as the repository of answers, when instead we need to develop the ability to self-regulate and self-adjust and to become relentless problem-solvers.
When I played college football, it was all about getting the “reps” and there was little if any effort made to help players understand how to coach themselves. Today, the directive-teaching model is bumping up against its inherent limits. In the workplace, for instance, employees must be able to innovate their own performance, conduct their own assessments and interventions, conduct careful postmortems of performance and reflect methodically on what went well and not so well. As Geoff Colvin observes in his book, "Talent Is Overrated," they must be able to “spot nonobvious information that’s important.”
As individuals continue to gain higher powers of concentration, observation and modification and explore more effective and self-reliant methods of practice, I can see the day that we start talking about the 5,000-hour rule.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a management consulting and training organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test." E-mail: [email protected].