Ever notice that job listings always call for 5 years of experience? There is a reason for that, and it is arbitrary.

The critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts.

Dr. Anders Ericsson first presented this concept in a research paper, which was later popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.

In short, one becomes an “expert” after training for 10,000 hours. Or 5 years.

However, everyone eventually reaches 5 years of professional development. Does that make everyone an expert by default? While 10,000 hours worth of experience does give one a good level of familiarity with the subject, I wouldn’t give out the title of “expert” that easily.

I believe it’s how you spend those 10,000 hours that marks your level of expertise. A journey of rote learning gives you a very different level of understanding than a journey of critical problem solving. The progression of difficulty, the quality of instruction, the extent to which you push yourself; they all matter.

The process of learning can be hacked too. Dr. Ericsson, in the same paper, even alludes,

Experts have acquired domain-specific memory skills that allow them to rely on long-term [working] memory to dramatically expand the amount of information that can be kept accessible.

And research does point out that working memory is trainable. In other words, you can theoretically augment your domain-specific training with exercises like the dual n-back game, and speed up your development.

This is just another example as to why we can’t generalize everyone’s development. A “5 years of experience” benchmark is just arbitrarious. A “best expert” after 10,000 hours is likely a case of correlation, than causation. Ultimately, it boils down to what you do on the way to 10,000.

So what does happen when you reach 10,000 hours?

I remember that around my first 10,000, solving problems and building things became clockwork. Perhaps, to some extent, effortless. But I realized that there was so much more I wanted to learn, which I now could. I wasn’t an “expert” by far. I had just leveled up, in a long hike to the top. And that’s the way it should be. Doors open, and you start the next phase. That’s all.

In the end, 10,000 is all but just a reminder for us to look back, reflect, and chart our way forward.

Here’s to our next 10,000.

Catch me on Twitter over here.


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