Monday, January 07, 2013

Using time well

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help

"Jack of all trades, master of none" has been morphed among my siblings and me into "Jack of all trades, master of several." We also sometimes say, "Talent on loan from God? Never felt the need to borrow any." Not that these are true, of course, but a little creative arrogance can do wonders to bolster optimism. However, there are very real problems with spreading effort into too many directions.

Item: When I started college, I thought, "Why do I have to pick a major? I want to major in everything!" That has a lot to do with it taking me seven years to finish a BS, with three minors. I eventually learned to focus, which led to a good career. The three minors came in useful much later, once I had mastered one field sufficiently.

Item: A friend once told me that the ideal house would have room for 10-20 long tables on which he could keep all the "stuff" needed for all of his hobbies, out and ready for use. That way, when he got tired or hit a snag with one endeavor, he could just find another project to work on for a while. This may explain why he never really finished anything.

On a different note, a famous pianist met a woman at a reception, who gushed, "Oh, I'd give my life to play like you do!" He replied, "I did." The message here is similar to a saying attributed to Arnold Schwarznegger: "Nobody likes to exercise. Everybody wants to 'have exercised'!"

I tell beginning guitar students, "With 10 hours of practice, you'll become comfortable with a chord or two. With 100 hours, you'll be able to play a number of tunes, and change chords easily. With 1,000 hours, you'll begin to focus on the music, more than on the instrument. With 10,000 hours, you'll be able to play anything in the styles you have been learning, and well enough to get paying gigs if you like."

In Robert Greene's new book Mastery, that notion is fleshed out with examples and exhortation intended to convince any lazybones who wants easy success, that there are no shortcuts. Greene first mentions the 10,000 hour threshold, then goes on to state that genuine mastery, sufficient to mentor others, often requires 20,000 hours. It takes a lot of passion for a subject to give it 10-20,000 hours of your time.

What does 10,000 hours represent? Working at a job 40 hours a week, with no vacations, yields 2,080 hours. Of course, nobody is "on task" for a full 8-hour day. Project planning in a technical discipline usually takes account of 35-36 "on-task weeks" in a work year, which accounts for vacations, illness, meetings, and even "pit stops". That comes to about 1,500 hours of "experience". In 5 years, then, one gains 7,500 hours, and can be expected to attain a total of 10,000 within the next 2-3 years. That is what is behind the statement found on many job descriptions, "5 years' experience required."

The Table of Contents of Mastery takes up 10 pages, with sufficient detail that you can use it for a cheat sheet after reading the book. Perhaps that is the point. The author makes heavy use of mini-biographies of masters in their field, from Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein to Henry Ford to John Keats to Temple Grandin. In all cases, he emphasizes the long and strenuous preparation, the apprenticeship, whether formal or not (usually not), that each underwent. To many Americans, the Beatles came out of nowhere and took the nation by storm. Very few knew of their many 8-hour days (or mainly nights) of performing in the 7 years prior to 1964. I used to think of a 2-hour gig as a hard day's work! (Greene doesn't mention the band, but I know their history.) Few know of Einstein's long years of preparation for the insights that would lead to his theories of Special and General Relativity (plus elucidation of the photoelectric effect, which is what won him the Nobel Prize).

Time is not the only factor. A book like Ben Hamper's Rivethead shows that putting in the time on a hated task may make you very skilled, but doesn't lead to any world-shaking masterwork. In fact, Hamper is known because he labored to perfect a different skill, writing, in addition to putting a few million rivets into truck bumpers. Thus, one must have a passion, a feeling that something is your Life's Work. In addition, it takes some added skills and traits to produce a genuine Master: persistence in your search, humility to learn from mentors, social intelligence to help you slip around roadblocks, and willingness to look where others aren't willing to look. As to that last: I am most proud of a publication of mine, reporting a numerical modeling technique that combines astronomical and civil-engineering methods. Getting it published was harder than making the discovery because it was so outré. Luckily I had a good mentor to help me mollify the editor (I still need work on mollification skills).

This brings me back to the opening proverb. A true fanatic may be able to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice in a chosen discipline in less than 5 years, but to become a real "Jack of all trades, and master of all of them" isn't possible. Let's see: 50 years, perhaps 10 "masteries"? Unlikely. Even the proverbial Renaissance Man seldom excelled in more than 4-5 fields. However, you do need to develop more than your chosen passion. Greene holds up Ben Franklin as an example of one who studied the people around him as carefully as any biologist studies a favorite genus of moths or wasps. He didn't want a lack of social skill to hamper the effectiveness of his scientific or diplomatic endeavors. And the childlike attitude that leads to great creativity must be cultivated. Rare indeed is someone who comes by it naturally, and perhaps nobody does.

I came to the book thinking that the hype on the jacket blurb portended "You can move the Sun with your thoughts" sort of blather. I was pleasantly surprised. The book is well done, with useful examples and a demeanor much less preachy than most self help books. Its message is well thought out and presented in a useful order that accords with experience. Greene stresses again and again that there are no shortcuts. A Bluesman will say, "To play the Blues, you gotta pay your dues." True in any worthwhile field.

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