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Making the Time for Mastery

Still capture of Gandalf in the Mines of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring
"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
-Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring
"Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you."
-Carl Sandburg
How do you spend your time? Or better yet, what do you want to accomplish with your time? For a lot of people, the answers to those questions are entirely different. Some people are not doing what they want to do; some are doing what they think others want them to do; and still others, sadly, are not doing anything at all. Yet, knowing what you want to do with your time, and actively pursuing it can be one of the best ways to achieve happiness in your life. So bringing the answers to those two questions closer together will likely make you happier.

The Time To Mastery


The problem is that essentially anything worth doing that will lead to more happiness, is going to take substantial time and effort. Most people won't want to make that commitment, but it's worth it. The journey is more valuable than the destination, and for me the activities that do not have a destination are the most satisfying. Because if there is room for improvement, then there is more opportunity for enjoyment. Such a pursuit inevitably results in a lifelong love of learning that can either be focused on one interest or spread across many.

To really get a sense of fulfillment in certain pursuits, you'll want to reach a level of mastery beyond mere dabbling. You don't decide to start playing the piano to tap out chopsticks for the rest of your days. You don't decide to pick up skiing to bomb bunny hills with no style or coordination. You don't decide to learn to program so you can write for loops that count for you. No, the fulfillment in these pursuits comes from mastering the craft to the point where you can make the tools sing. Then you are no longer learning the tools, you are learning to create beauty and push the tools to their limits in new and fascinating ways.

What kind of time commitment are we talking about here? In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell makes the claim that it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a new skill such as learning to program or playing a musical instrument. That 10,000 hours would be equivalent to 5 years of full-time practice, 40 hours per week. Think about that. If you put in that much time to learn something, you would probably get quite good at it. Considering the few skills I feel that I've mastered, I would say that it sounds about right.

Now there are some caveats to this time estimate. First, the type of practice matters. Take learning to play the piano, as an example. If you quickly learn to play a few songs, and then only play those songs over and over again, you will not achieve any kind of mastery even if you log 10,000 mind-numbing hours of Hungarian Rhapsody on the ivory keys. Dedicated practice does involve reviewing what you're good at, but the majority of your time should be spent learning what you don't know and practicing what you're not good at. Another major focus should be constantly practicing the fundamentals until they feel effortless. Both of those aspects of practicing are hard, but necessary to keep improving, and overcoming the challenge is definitely rewarding.

The second caveat is that mastering a skill does not necessarily make you an expert, depending on how popular or expansive the field is. To be considered an expert pianist or software engineer, logging 10,000 hours will probably not be enough. The former is too competitive and the latter is too broad. On the other hand, logging 10,000 hours of speed cubing might be enough to get you near the top performers. In any case, whether you're learning piano or speed cubing, what that much practice will give you is fluency in the skill. You'll be able to do impressive things and creatively experiment, which will be immanently satisfying.

Where Does The Time Go?


Alright, 10,000 hours is a lot of time. How can you carve out that much time from your busy schedule to practice something you want to learn? Let's take a look at my own way of parsing time, see how I fit in learning a new skill, and how long it would take to master that skill. Breaking up a week of time, or 168 hours, should give a good estimate since one week is much like any other.

Chart of allocation of a week of my time
  • I generally need 8 hours of sleep a night so that leaves 112 waking hours per week. 
  • I have a full-time job with a short commute and some morning prep time that adds up to about 50 hours, so that leaves 62 hours of home time. 
  • I have a young family, and while the kids are awake, my priority is with them. Between weekends and weeknights, I devote another 44 hours to my family, leaving 18 hours per week.
  • This blog takes an average of 6 hours per week, and that leaves just 12 hours per week to learn something new.
  • At 12 hours per week, or 600 hours per year, it will take me about 16.5 years to master a new skill!
Wow, I didn't expect it to take that long, but there are some opportunities hidden in that analysis. First, I'm lucky enough to be in a career that I love, and it also happens to require almost constant learning. That means if I'm consciously practicing to become a better programmer at work, I can become better at my job, adding value to my company at the same time that I'm personally benefiting from improving my programming skills. I still need to read outside of work to know what I need to do to practice, but if I actively apply what I learn at work, that constitutes dedicated practicing.

Also, as my kids get older, we'll be able to learn and practice new things together, with the dual benefit of family bonding time and group learning. Both aspects will give us extra motivation to learn more and have more fun doing it.

Finally, writing this blog is really part of further improving my programming skills, and attempting to improve my written communication skills. Therefore, I would count those hours toward learning skills I'm already working on. But that last number is quite the shock. If it takes 16.5 years to master a new skill, outside of career related skills, I can expect to master a grand total of 2 new skills before I retire, maybe 3 since I assume I'll have more time as I near retirement. Of course, once retired, I'll have time to master new abilities to my heart's content.

Forget the Bucket List and Make a Mastery List


It's a little disheartening to think that I'll only master a handful of skills in my lifetime. Since I'm more interested in mastering a variety of things than focusing purely on one, I have to be carefully selective of what I spend my time on. Some people have a bucket list of things they'd like to do before they die. Instead, I have a mastery list, and I think of the things on that list as belonging to three broad categories:
  1. Skills mastered, and still improving: Software Engineering, Digital Design, Mathematics, Alpine Skiing
  2. Skills learning, but not yet mastered: Tennis, Golf, Chess, Guitar, Juggling
  3. Skills to learn, but not yet started: Piano, Physics
Overall, that's a pretty short list. Surprisingly, I couldn't think of many things I want to master but haven't started yet. I guess that's a good sign that I'm doing what I want to do with my time. One thing's for sure, though. Any one of those skills could fill a lifetime, especially the science and engineering fields. I purposefully left those as generic as possible, even though I have only mastered narrow areas of them. The joy of those fields comes from their limitless potential for learning new and challenging things. That precludes having a category for completely mastered. If I'm not improving in something, I'm stagnating and losing any mastery I may have achieved.

Now how to manage that 12 hours per week, or more if you're lucky? Well, you certainly shouldn't be watching any TV. I don't and haven't for years. I would suggest a tweak of the advice from Glengarry Glen Ross - Always Be Practicing. Make progress every week. If 12 hours a week seems like too much time to devote to one thing, try splitting it between two or more things, but if you want to make forward progress, you shouldn't let a week go by without practicing!