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Thursday, 22 August 2019


I think the thing you really like to do is blogging about photography. How many 10,000's of hours have you put in? And you do it every day!

Mike, I think the real key to it is , sort of ‘all of it’ . To reach world class accomplishment , you do need some aptitude, you do need lots of practice, and the ability to see the end before the beginning, and practice as a way to get there.
But the real distinguishing trait among most people who achieve that level of success, if you listen to them, is that it is not so much a choice on their part, it that they ‘can’t NOT do it’ almost like breathing. They feel better doing it than anything else, even if it is very hard work. They don’t see the work as much as they see the result they have a need to achieve.

I think this is true but sort of takes the argument into a dead end, missing the other key dynamic. You like something, you do it enough to feel, see, hear, some kind of payoff and that often determines where you go from there. That reward loop is a powerful force that influences "how much" time, energy, money you are willing to devote to said activity.

And then, sometimes Carl just likes to walk about in Connecticuit with his digital camera and watch the weeds grow!

I practice the organ every day, at lunchtime usually, although as a student for five years, it was the cathedral in the evening. I've been playing keyboards since aged three, but it isn't my day job.

There have been days that my fingers have been so cold that buttoning up my jacket has been difficult, but hasn't affected my ability to play.

But it isn't a hobby, something which those doing something similar, may relate to.

"people who are gung-ho to master something or other (not just photography). They're extremely determined, and at first they're very focused and work very hard. But as time goes on, their interest fade"

Mike, I think photography attracts a lot of guys this way. They buy all sorts of equipment, walk around with big impressive penile lenses when they go to popular tourist sites, participate on all sorts of forums, post their photographs on a bunch of social media links. And then what? After a while, they realize nobody cares, including their family members. After a couple of years, you never hear from them again and all that nice pro equipment goes into a closet.

I really enjoy photography, and I would do more of it if my schedule allowed me to travel more. (I really enjoy travel, too, so that would be win-win.) That said, I find I can take pictures for a few hours a day for a week in a row while travelling, then I'm done for a while. As for working up the photos, I have set a task for myself to finish one image a day to the point that I can post it on Flickr. That can take anywhere from 10 minutes for the whole process (finishing, titling, tagging, and posting) to an hour or so. As it turns out, that's exactly the right amount of processing for me; I could keep that up for a long time, I think. Could I turn myself into a true pro who spends more than 40 hours a week on photography? Nope. It's great hobby, but it's not my life's work, and I am happy that I learned that about myself years ago.

I don't think it needs to make you happy. I think you just need to be able to do it regardless of how it makes you feel.

A few years ago I decided to attempt, as a sort of performance art project, to go from being a frustrated musical dabbler to a competent and creative musician in the scene. I've slowly ramped up my practicing to a goal of 20 hours per week and usually get there (that's counted in 15 minute increments so it's all good time and not goofing off).

Still not enough to do what I want to do but I am definitely getting better. I'm not in the scene but I know where the scene is.

I watched an interview with Chris Potter the jazz saxophonist who talked about practicing constantly and how it's lonely. I totally get that. I also feel like I don't have time to do much else right now (like photography or 80 other things). But I'm 44 and well there's no time like the present.

I've practiced at least 15 minutes a day (my absolute minimum) for 541 days for a total of 1281 hours this far. Long way from being a master but I just put my head down and keep working.

Violinist Hillary Hahn started a hashtag on Instagram #100daysofpractice and posting my progress on Instagram has really helped motivate me.


Besides writing, a lot of my work involves creating training programs for the people who make this blog - and the entire Internet - possible, the installers of fiber optic networks. More than 25 years ago, I stole an idea from the IBEW apprenticeship program(the electrical workers union), the concept of "KSAs".

KSAs stands for knowledge, skills and abilities. To be competent in any task, you need to have the proper knowledge, hands-on skills and physical abilities. For any task, you do a JTA (tech is into TLAs - three letter acronyms!). JTA is a job task analysis. Once you define the task, you can define the KSAs. Then you develop classroom training for the knowledge, hands-on lab exercises for developing skills and evaluating abilities.

Once you have a basic grasp of a task, meeting the basic level of the KSAs, you then graduate to OJT - on the job training - where you get practice - the repetitions stage.

I know the commonly accepted number of repetitions or hours is 10,000, but that's not what it takes for most learners. Most tasks in our field can be learned in less than 10 repetitions and skills flatten out by 100 repetitions.

What all this misses is motivation and another very important item. Paul Newman certainly had the abilities to be a racing driver. And he had the motivation to spend the time developing the knowledge and skills necessary.

That other item, however, is resources - mostly money. Newman could afford to take time off his work, pay for the best cars and mechanics and track time to practice. Plus he had a reputation - fame actually - that made having him as a customer or partner highly attractive.

Lots of people have the skills to be good at something, many have the motivation, but few have the resources needed to become successful.

But Newman, you have to admire, he was 70 when he won his last race!

This should be required reading for young people who have fanciful dreams of entrepreneurship. Not to discourage them but to provoke careful thought. BTW, I've never been an entrepreneur but have studied enough business to know I probably never should be. I'm also nearly 42 and haven't found "that thing" I could do every day. I simply enjoy dabbling in too many things to ever become a master and have accepted that. Call me Jack instead.

Sometimes the most valuable books come from people who don't really want to be writers. Particularly any book that absolutely requires a point-of-view other than that of a writer :-) .

(I'm thinking non-fiction there; in fiction, the writer rarely actually is what their protagonist is. You do a lot of research and you fake it, mostly; to various levels of quality.)

I'm reading Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code" at the moment. He talks about deep practice being key to developing myelin more quickly (which, in turn, lets you do the things you practice, better). There are a few key features of that deep practice. The second key (which I'm reading about currently) is ignition, which is partly the reason you start practicing, but more importantly, the reason you keep up those 10,000 hours of deep practice. He talks about when talent hotbeds pop up, like when Russian women tennis players or Korean women golfers started dominating following an inspining headline-dominating victory. And then he talks about an interesting study that showed the expected trend between musical skill and hours practiced among school children, but which wanted to go farther in explaining why some children scored better despite practicing less than others. And after trying to attribute it to various variables, they found a big correlation between what a student got out of his or her practice and a students initial mindset in terms of how long they expected to be playing an instrument. Student data was lumped into three groups: Students who expected to play for only a year or two, students who expected to play through middle school and students who expected to play for much longer. In each group, more practice meant higher skill ratings, but for any given number of hours, the students with the more committed mindsets scored higher - they got more out of their practice. I still have more to read and I'm not sure how, exactly, it relates to this post, but it's an interesting book.

10,000 hrs take 8 hrs every day for 4 years. Or 4 hrs every day for 8 years. Anything to which you devote this kind of time, all the while deriving pleasure from it, can only be an enduring obsession. And, as most obsessions go, not exactly amendable to a life lived anywhere close to its deserved fullness.

Now, if this practice comes in the course of your work/profession, as in a +/- 8 hr work day, then the only issue remaining is whether you enjoy your work or not. If you do, great. If you don't, well, you are probably getting better at it anyway.

Otoh, if you devote 10 hrs per week/weekend to this purposeful pursuit, it will take you 20 years to accumulate 10,000 hrs. Congrats, you, sir, have a life-long, dedicated hobby.

Look at it another way. Planning and sticking to 10,000 hrs of practice is just like the much hyped current state-of-the art deep machine learning paradigm, wherein a neural network "learns" through supervised exposure to massive amounts of training data. The general idea is that the neural network follows a gradient descent to reach some desired extremum. The problem is, what if this a mere local extremum?

I am pretty sure that if I spend 10,000 hrs shooting photographs, at the end of it I will be a better photographer, but only compared to the version of me at the beginning. I will have descended to a local extremum, or, if you prefer, ascended to my own personal plateau. Am I now an expert?

Imo, 10,000 hrs, whether pleasurable or not, is neither necessary nor sufficient. So, what's the point of it, again?

Any photo of a person is still a portrait.

Street photography gives plenty of opportunities and I now like to take pictures of the everyday guy. To put it another way, I am comfortable doing it. Most times, when I ask permission, I get it. It gets better with practice.

It does not have to be pictorially perfect because you are not charging for it. You do it for the fun and for the pleasure.

I've thought about "talent" a lot, because I supposedly have some (for writing.) For people who are talented, I think there's a combination of genetics and work involved, and the work begins very early -- at kindergarten, or before. And I think much of it comes down to random chance. Given a certain level of intelligence, a kid might do something -- write a paragraph, draw a picture, sing a song -- and somebody, a mother or a father or a teacher, tells him/her, "That's really good. You have a nice ability." That encouragement leads the kid to do a little more in the selected area, and eventually, he/she gets recognition from peers, and the recognition becomes a powerful motivator to do even more. That feedback loop eventually becomes a "talent," and it's a talent that may have been created purely by chance -- a stray comment or compliment at just the right time. Another kid with the same potential doesn't get the encouragement, and the talent never gets developed. That's really the tragedy of bad schools, which are more like cages than incubators. Kids get wasted.

Here's two contrasting examples of the "10,000 hours" hypothesis from the world of motor racing.

First, Nicky Hayden, a kid from Owensboro, Kentucky. His father had raced motorcycles and raised is son to do the same. Nicky was racing kiddie dirt track events by age 6. By his mid teens (likely having cleared the magic 10,000 hours mark already) he was racing and winning on both road courses and dirt track. He was a professional roadracer for Honda at 17. He won the U.S. Superbike championship at age 22. Then he moved on to Grand Prix racing in Europe, hoping to become world champion.

Now consider Australian Troy Bayliss. He did a little motocross as a teenager but gave it up. He settled down, got married and had an auto body repair business. One day a customer who'd lost his job and couldn't pay his bill offered his Kawasaki ZX-7 motorcycle in trade. Troy thought it would be fun to race one of those so he said yes. Thus at age 23, when Nicky Hayden had probably 20,000 hours of experience, Troy Bayliss took up roadracing — with no idea what he was doing: Knowing nothing of carburettor jetting or suspension setup, he just put gas in the tank and air in the tires and raced. And won. Within two years he was racing professionally. He won the Australian Superbike Championship. He moved on to the World Superbike Championship and won that in 2001. A brief foray into MotoGP (Grand Prix) didn't work out so he went back to Superbikes and won a second world championship there.

In 2006 Nicky Hayden was having his best year ever, but a mistake by his teammate put him 8 points down to the legendary Valentino Rossi going into the final race. Nicky pulled out all the stops and Rossi tried a little too hard and crashed. Nicky finished third in the race, which was good enough for him to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming world champion.

Troy Bayliss might have been capable of winning the more prestigious MotoGP championship, and probably only failed to do so because of team dynamics when he raced that series. But after he won his second World Superbike championship the factory rewarded him with a one-off ride in a Grand Prix race. And Bayliss, the guy who didn't start racing until he was 23, was the rider who won the race in which Nicky Hayden came in third and took the world championship.


Professional golfers may practice much and very hard, at least the good ones. But that does not mean that all professionals practice much at all or even care for their skill. This applies to many professional photographers and also for example to police officers and gun handling. Amateurs are often much more passionate, and bettwr, about these skills than many professionals. After all amateur means they do it for the love of it (amore).

Boy do I think this hit a bulls-eye. I am an avid reader of mastery theory and learning theory books and articles. I have two internet teachers (guitar) one of whom is an amazing teacher of mastery methods and thinking. Actually the best teacher on this I have ever discovered, but YES I have come to realize that you cannot theorize your way to mastery or force yourself to mastery through raw determination. YOU HAVE GOT TO LOVE WHAT YOU ARE DOING to become obsessed which is what is needed to reach mastery. THEN you get to put in your "10,000 hours". Your article really hit home for me in my whole intellectual journey on learning about learning and applying it to my life. Now the question is: do I want it enough? Perhaps the fact that I am rhetorically asking this question at all means that I probably don't. We shall see. Thanks you for this insight.

Nicely done Mike, thank you.

Great piece, Mike, thought-provoking and with a lot to unpack. I'm of the belief that if you stick with something long enough, you'll eventually find your way to the brass ring at the heart of it. False starts and dead ends just seem to be part of the process.

this is an insight, that only the experienced (= old?) can have. however, you're right, and you put it extremely well.

but of course, there are difficulties ahead, when you don't find the one occupation that you enjoy putting your time on; or even worse, when there is more than one thing that you love to do.

well. i finally chose a career in an area that was easy to master for me, so i could earn my money with 'minimal' effort, and quickly jump into beloved hobbies once the professional day had ended. not bad for a living style, but no merits either.


I'm pretty sure there is a Mark Twain quotation to the effect that if you make something you enjoy your vocation, you will destroy the joy. As I recall the story, Samuel Clemens was going to be a writer but thought that the Mississippi river and the steam boats that ran on it were so beautiful and romantic that he trained to be a steamboat pilot instead. After which, he could no longer see beauty and romance in the river and its steamboats; he could only see navigation marks, embankments and snags. Of course, when the Civil War stopped the steam boats, he became a writer after all, calling himself Mark Twain after the boatman's call for a water depth of two fathoms, being the minimum navigable depth.

That's a good insight, and likely a good reason I will never be a professional writer. I have a hard enough time even keeping a decent journal, much less writing a significant amount every day.

There are other tricks to help you keep up the work, too, once you find your "good thing". I've been reading a Kim Stanley Robinson sci-fi novel ,2312, after a friend recommended it. Quite enjoyable. Listening to an interview with him, he said after a few novels he had reached a point of burn out and seriously doubted he could keep going. But he ended up moving to a nice small college town in California, and now writes outside in his front yard every day. It turned out that he was burned out typing indoors, not outdoors.

The 10,000 hours topic is often discussed in sport. Elite cyclists ride for many hours a year and all of them have spent years ascending through the ranks yet their level of success is only partly attributable to the many hours spent training and competing. Even among the very top level of WorldTour professional cyclists there are varying degrees of dedication, determination on top of a favourable set of genes.

Belgian 19 year old Remco Evenepoul's meteoric rise to success in the pro ranks this year is shocking to many because he only took up cycling seriously 2 years ago. Most riders winning races at this level are in their mid-20s or older and have been racing since their youth. It is reckoned that a cyclist's win rate depends at least as much on tactical nouse and experience as it does on having strong lungs and legs.

I have read Outliers and David Epstein's book The Sports Gene. I've seen Outliers described as a set of examples chosen to illustrate a theory. I'd agree with that and I found Epstein has a much more rigorous and illuminating discussion of the various likely factors. Having played music and sung since childhood, I'm aware of an innate ability that has given me a significant advantage over others - voicing chords in my head while writing 4-part harmony, tuning a guitar or finding the notes on an unfamiliar instrument. Even when young I could somehow 'just hear' things that no amount of practice can teach. I also struggle to listen to instruments or voices that are out of tune while most others are unaware.

PS Mike,
Check out what Tommy Emmanuel says about Practicing.....
And it is not drudgery for him, it is exploration and a means to an End


See, this is why I'm going to be a beach bum when I retire. I could spend all sorts of time walking a beach, talking with people here and there and just enjoying the warmth of the sun. I'd have plenty of time to catch up on my reading of the (interesting-to-me) classic books.

Sure, it doesn't pay well. But I could easily do the 10,000 hours.

I'd take breaks and plan driving trips on two-lanes. No interstates. Just meandering, twisty country roads -- but they would have to be nicely paved. No dirt roads during those pleasure trips. And after a while, I'd probably take a part-time job because all that free time wouldn't be as precious when I have it all the time. Living in Arizona, a sunny day is like any other. Nice summer days in Ohio are treasured and surviving the winter cold makes the warmth of the sun even more enjoyable. (Yes, I'd bring the old Pentax SL kit.)

I think it was John Lennon who screamed,
"I've got blisters on my fingers!".

Hmmm, seems I've mastered telly watching and I didn't realise! Can't see how to monetise it though.

Well said. I made some similar calculations about 10 years ago, and came to the same conclusion. As it happens, the market has got even tougher since then, so I was lucky.

Nor did I want to lose my love of photography.

I did that with computers. As a neophyte nerd in the early 1980s I was right there at the dawn of the personal computing revolution. I graduated from Commodore and Acorn to Apple and PC.

In '85 I got a job with a major IT company, and learned to do it properly - on mainframes. At first it was challenging but interesting, then it was fun as I began to master it and see what was possible, then a little repetitive as I churned out more of the same old financial and retail software, and then downright boring.

As my responsibilities increased with each salary increment, it also became more stressful and political, and less technical.

In all this time, I clung to photography as my creative outlet - my way to unwind and recalibrate.

This only works because I am free to follow my muse, and because every image and every location is a new challenge.

If I had chosen photography as my profession, you would probably never see me with a camera when I wasn't working. I would probably be tinkering with computers and writing freeware apps.

Two points: I just saw Penn and Teller's show at the Rio in Vegas. Penn, of course, differentiated "juggling" with "magic". Juggling involved hours of practice so you could, for example, tell the difference between a stack of 35 cards and 37 cards strictly by feel. Magic is where you use lying, cheating and trickery to achieve the same end.

On another note, Earl Scruggs had just figured out how to play the banjo in his distinctive style with one song. His brother came by and said "Is that all you know how to play?"

Nice essay!

Seems to me you've hit the nail on the head, fleshing out Gladwell's thesis so that it makes actual sense to me.

I am bemused by those writers, like Ann Patchett, who prescribe regimens of so many hours and/or so many words at the same time each day as the only way one may write successfully.

One of the things I did in my business career was write software. I was not in IT; I wrote to accomplish my goals in other areas.

Although I did some special purpose, short term programs. I did a couple that lasted decades. One, in particular, has lasted over 30 years, used by the top management of a Fortune 500 company. It even survived an acquisition, being adopted by the acquiring company. I think that qualifies as a success.

I wrote code when the Muse struck (not Erato?). I could force myself to work on it during work hours, or under deadline, but all my best work was done at odd times, and not in nicely organized times and lengths. I would often work for hours, often in what most folks would call the middle of the night. Getting to bed at 4 am was generally the sign of a particularly creative and productive, hours long session. Breakthrough ideas tended to come in the shower.

Now, to my great surprise, I seem to be writing a book. I think it's shaping up to be good. But that's not the reason I'm doing it. I'm doing it because that's what shows up. I may not write for days, even 2-3 weeks. Then, Blam!, I can hardly tear myself away from the keyboard. Yup, got to bed at 4:15 am, night before last. It was 15,000 words, midday yesterday, 16k by bed time. There's enough floating around randomly in my head to easily double that, and new material emerges as I write, so length shouldn't be a problem.

I've been reading Natalie Goldberg's Long Quiet Highway. She, too thinks, early in her life, that there's a magic formula of practice that makes good writing possible. She's been teaching that idea to thousands of would be writers for decades.

What works for one writer may not work for another. Following religiously the formula that works for someone else may, in fact, stifle the creativity of another. I wonder what harm Goldberg may have done to potentially good writers with different temperments than hers. Ah, well, the really good, or better, ones have likely been writing, not going to workshops.

"So the question becomes, what exactly is it that you can practice endlessly and have it make you happier rather than driving you crazy? That's the thing you should do."

I may be a writer. Well, at the moment, I certainly am. Whether I will be successful, by my own standards, a finished book, or the commercials standard of being published and selling, remains to be seen.

Based on this criterion of yours, which I love, I should be a Photoshop worker. I have way more than the magic 10,000 hours in doing that. I can work in PS for hours, hunched over keyboard and mouse, peering closely at a screen, in violation of all the wisdom of how to avoid ill effects from doing those things without breaks.

And I emerge energized, happy, not enervated or worn. I'm not stiff, sore, etc. at all.

What the wet darkroom was to you, the digital darkroom is for me.

What are your methods for pulling together your BD entries Mike? Not that I am going to critique it, I'm just interested is all. Also, if it takes too long to explain, don't worry - I can live without knowing :-)

When the dust cleared, it became clear that I would have to do three portrait sittings a day, five or six days a week ... You mean real work—like having a real job? You've got to get out there and market yourself. Now that is a real job. Ew.

Many refuse to charge a realistic price. Don't think like a race-to-the-bottom Craigslist Wedding Photographer—be the most expensive photographer in your market. If you do this, you have to have the bona fides (authentic credentials). This does two things, firstly it keeps the cheapskates away. The second benefit is that your clients will their friends Mike is expensive ...but he sure is worth it.

About 10,000 hours. ...leaving other factors such as ...natural talent to account for the difference. Ya think! (comment of the obvious).

My thoughts on Portrait Photography. Offer a premium platinum-print portrait package. Shoot with 11x14 film, and do a contact Platinum Palladium-print. Or shoot with a Leica Monochrom, and print your 11x14 negative. Here's a good video of Manuel Gomes Teixeira, photographer and Platinum Palladium printer at work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDsUv4qPt6o

If you want to be good at something, you have to love it enough to suck at it.

Some people however, are just naturally very good. Early in my teaching career, I was giving an honours-level (4th year) course in mathematics at La Trobe University in Adelaide. Most students wer about 21 yo, but one was 13. He was already doing 1 on 1 work with the head of school, and at the end of the year he left for Cal Tech.

He's still there. Won the Fields Medal some years back. Possibly one of the smartest mathematicians alive: Terry Tao.

It wasn't that he already knew averything. Most of my course was new to him... but if you explained something once, correctly, he got it and could go on with it. If you explained it incorrectly, he saw that immediately and asked probing questions. His brain just worked with incredible efficiency in mathematics (but he was still at 13 yo level for literature).

Some people are tall, some are short, some have outstanding abilities. Genetics, it turns out, is incredibly important.

Gladwell lost me when he claimed that what made the Beatles so great was their endless performing in the UK and Germany. (Practice, practice, practice.) The fact that many other bands of that era performed just as much with little success to show for it made me put the book down. Simplistic answers to complex questions are usually inadequate, regardless of how satisfyingly neat they may seem.

If this blog had a like button, I would push it twice! I really like this article. It hits home, probably a little harder than I would like to admit. But it is oh so true.

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