The problem with most human improvement endeavors is that we have a complete misconception of how much time it actually takes to change behavior and ultimately improve. Most people will not commit the time it takes to change or improve themselves. I read some research on this a while back and I think it was something like 1 out of 25 people will even be willing to commit a sustained effort toward a singular ambition. Now we are really good at having the ambition, but very poor at execution. I think the reason for that has a large part to do with the misconception of time.
When I started running, I was under the mistaken belief that I could “become a runner” after a few weeks of sustained effort. At the time I was running 20 minutes a day, which equated to about 2 hours a week. My concept was that after 3 – 4 weeks, I would have this whole running thing figured out. So that would be effectively 8 hours at the most that I would consider appropriate “effort.” Reality is that it took well over 1000 hours to even be what I would consider slightly competent. I average about 8 to 10 hours running per week now. I am probably logging 500 hours a year or so. At this rate, I would not really be “good” until 10 years of this effort. That is about 5000 hours of experience. You see this is the core of the problem.
People think they can be efficient or good at running because they are “trying.” I hear this a lot. I tried running for a few weeks, and I just cannot do it. Incredible. I have tried running for 4 years and I am still not that great at it. I think I am somewhat proficient, understand basic form and what to work on, but that is about it. I have a long way to go, and probably will never get there.
If we were to compare this to music. This is equally a problem. Now I think people have learned that picking up an instrument is not something that you can do overnight, but people do have misconception of time expectation here as well. They think 6 months or perhaps 1 year is enough. If you practiced piano every day for 20 minutes for 1 year that would be about 120 hours of experience on that instrument. Take a child prodigy. I hate that word, because it is a lie. There is no magic sit at the piano and become Mozart myth. The child prodigy that you see at a young age playing the piano has probably logged 5,000 hours from age 5 to 15. That is practicing 1 – 2 hours a day for 10 years. When you watch their video on Youtube, you are saying, wow that is amazing. You erroneously think that the kid just magically could play, but really what happened is that they were playing every night, every weekend for 10 years. Lots of crying. Lots of sacrifice. Lots of pain. You have a incorrect time expectation. You look at the young 15 year old child and think, that is amazing they can play the piano so well at a young age. Well, I will tell you this. You can play the piano just as well, just start right now, spend 2 hours a day practicing for the next 10 years and you will also be considered “good.” Now you will not be master level, or concert pianist level, but you be good.
The reason you tend to quit things early is precisely because your time expectation to get to proficiency is way out of whack. My rule of thumb is that it will take 1000 hours to be proficient, and then 5000 hours to be competent at most anything. Somethings are different and there are always exceptions, but the rule is pretty safe. I have seen this time and time again with things that I have taught over the years. Chess is a good example, follows the same basic rule. It is amazing what happens when someone finally get to 1000 hours of game play experience. It is like a light switch suddenly comes on and they are finally able to really understand the game. When they hit 5000 hours, they can seriously play against most anyone. However, let me tell you this. The gap between a good player and a Grand Master player is vast. 45,000 hours of practice and game play vast. When you see that 14 year old Grand Master competing at the USCF 2500 rating level, you are seeing a child that has put in 50,000 hours of chess play in 10 years. That is almost 100 hours of chess time a week. That is a bit of a stretch, not really possible, but what are they doing on the weekends? Friday nights and ever night in between? Playing chess. During the school week they get 20 hours of practice in. After school, evening, and during the day playing puzzles, and games on their phone. Then Friday night comes and it is three days of chess. They have their head in a book, or a pocket game, or memorizing positions in their head all weekend long. This repeats for 10 years. Now they may not get to 50,000 hours. Perhaps 35,000 – 45,000, but somewhere along that path they become really freaking good at chess. Most people do not know this, but even the amazing 14 year old, early Grand Master “prodigy” is not good enough to beat the top level chess players. Everyone knows Bobby Fischer, the amazing 14 year old that took the U.S. Chess World by storm in 1957. What they do not realize that it was not until he was 29, in 1972 that he beat the best of the best to take the World Championship. So he probably had logged 40,000 hours of chess time at age 14. How many hours did he have under his belt at 29? Remember he was single, no real family obligation. He was a full time tournament chess player for another 15 years. That is probably another 60,000 hours of chess practice. So when he showed up in the 1972 Candidates Tournament to play famous 46 year old Russian Mark Taimanov, it was just embarrassing. Fischer won all 6 games. This was never heard of before. How can you beat one of the world’s top GMs in 6 straight games? Then Fischer went on to beat Danish Bent Larsen in 6 straight games as well and the world knew something magical was going on. Was it magic? Or was it 100,000+ hours of chess practice?
I remember teaching students at the college the field of computer science, specifically networking or what we call now days, “IP.” Many of the students would get frustrated because they did not “get it” right away. They had been told how awesome they were at technology their short little lives because they could read a manual, play a game, or program the VCR clock. However, now that it was show time and they had to put effort into learning something, they would freak out. One Semester of school work, according to Carnegie, produced roughly 144 hours of work for 1 class. This is for a 16 week, 3 unit class. Most kids coming into college have never worked 144 hours of anything much less homework. Rude awakening to say the list. BTW, I was not able to have a competent conversation with one of these students about the industry that they wanted to work in until after they had learned the “language,” and that took a full course load for two years. That equated to just about 1000 hours.
We are just too impatient. We are lied to all the time. Britney Spears was born talented, right? Not true. She started at age 3, full time. Dancing, singing lessons, voice lessons. At age 8 she went into the Mickey Mouse club and also went into professional performing arts school. Her first major hit was in 1999, she was born in 1981. By the time she got to that point, how many hours did this child put into this work? 15 years at at least 2500 hours a year. By this time, at least 40,000 hours of practice, performances, contests, training, coaching, and even recording in front of live studio audiences. By the time that Spears was 18, she was already a “master” of her craft, having spent more time practicing her skills then most people do anything in their entire lives. Child prodigy is a farce to say the least. We have a time expectation that is a lie, which is why we struggle to do anything good.
You take any person off the street, put them through the same 40 – 50 thousand hours of training and they are going to be pretty darn good at what they do. Now there maybe some factors to include. Looks, physique, charisma, luck, these all play a factor, but pale in comparison to the shear cold hard reality that behind every superstar is hours, hours, hours and more hours of practice. So next time you think you are going to Mr. or Mrs. awesome, bounce a quarter off your abs person. Just realize, there is no one on the planet that got to that level of physical fitness without thousands of hours of hard work. Even with steroids!