Saturday, May 16, 2009

I Am Not an Expert

The section from Gladwell's Outliers -- positing that one requires 10,000 hours of practice before one can be considered an "expert" -- came up in the writers' room recently. Almost habitually, I did the Fermi Problem in my head as I was leaving the parking lot Friday.

On a good day, I get a solid four hours of productive screenwriting done. That's actual head-down typing, new words produced, problems solved with pens and flowcharts on card-stock. For every weekend I've plowed straight through I've utterly goofed off, so lets say 5 days therefore 20 hours a week, so 5 weeks gives me 100 hours let's multiply by 10 to get 50 weeks a year (vacation for 2 weeks) producing 1000 hours per year ... wrote my spec feature in '99 -- I'll just cross the threshold this year. For television writing you could argue 12 years (12,000 hours) but I had a whackload of years off in the middle there where I just wrote pilots and never staffed. You could argue I've got no more than half that time elbow-deep in the bloody guts of broadcast television writing and producing.

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what that means, other than a.) put your head down and take every job you can, and assume b.) you'll suck for quite a bit of it and c.) ultimately it won't matter as long as you do a.) and build your toolbox.

One might also assume that my actual expertise -- gleaned from doing stand-up since I was 22 -- is in convincing strangers that I am amusing and competent, and assume that expertise over-rode my lack of competency in sheer craft.

Regardless, this only supports the idea that any advice I offer about writing on this site should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

Submissions, please, for your Odd Area of Expertise, in the Comments.

(Oh, and the first person with any variant of "well, considering the quality of your work I'm not surprised" Comment will be banned simply for screaming unoriginality. I mean, really. Stretch a little.)


The Minstrel Boy said...

music is a harsh mistress. very demanding. many times, while watching yet another marriage or relationship go down the tubes, i would hear the same old same old

even when you're home, you're not here..or some other such bullshit. here's the thing about music. i have to spend a minimum of four hours a day on my main instruments (that's four hours spread out between three instruments, not four hours for each).

if i was a virtuoso (which i simply don't have the talent to go for) it would be five to six, on one axe only. often five to six, or more, on that one axe trying to nail down that one concerto or sonata, because after all i not only have to play that bitch perfectly, i have to play it from fucking memory.

i not only have to teach my head, i have to teach my autonomic nervous system and my muscles.

my da was a professional muscian too. he schooled me harsh but for real. he used to have a deal where i would practice while watching a baseball, football, or basketball game. at any time, while i was playing he'd ask me questions. "what down is it?" "who's on deck?" "what's the inning?" i'd have to keep playing through it all. i got so i could practice, watch the game, hell, even enjoy the game. right now i'm enjoying the hell out of the beginning of baseball season (except as a padres fan, it's a bittersweet and tragic love) and basketball playoffs.

he knew that there would come a time when i'd be playing some gig, i'd be trying to flirt with the cutie at table six, keep the drummer somewhere close to the tempo, and handle the waitress getting drink orders for the band.

it only gets worse when i'm getting ready for a gig. i try to have as much of what ever performer i'm backing's playlist down. i listen and play along with as many live tapes as i can get. just like a sports type watching film, i'm looking for tendancies.

my goal is to have the songs down so that it is automatic.

that's where i have to get before i can even think about trying to make art out of it.

by the way, if i miss a day or a session of practice it's a 2:1 time climb back to where i was when i fucking got lazy.

(my post code is psyonica which is a harmonica that's only in your head)

Matthew said...

It's almost like Gladwell read some of those articles about how reading four books about a subject, any subject, effectively makes you an expert compared to the general population and got pissed. "Oh, just four books? Let me prove that you need 10,000 hours to be an expert."

Whether Gladwell likes it or not, what matters is less whether you are an expert, and more whether you can convince people you're an expert. The jobs (and fame and wealth) seem to go to the people who act like experts, not the actual experts. Not that I'm complaining. I don't want to spend 10,000 hours of doing inanity before I actually get paid for a project. This is all part of my "It's more important to know how to find things out than have the stuff in your brain" theory.

And the corollary to the whole "you have to put in x hours" is the old adage "Nobody knows anything." Well, it's a Hollywood adage, so it's applicable to screenwriting (or directing or casting or catering).

Hey, let's remember that Wall Street was (and still is) filled with experts. And they still drove the car into the lake.

Before I sound too Luddite (is there such a thing), I would prefer a pilot with 10,000 hours of a flight-time to the guy who buzzes the tower for kicks. At least in real life. In the movies, I would rather have the hotshot who buzzes the tower and doesn't concern himself with "training" and "logs" and "hours in the cockpit". I'd gladly be his RIO, sacrificing my life to rescue us from a dead spin over the Pacific, knowing that my sacrifice would all be worth it when that god of the big screen cries out, with tears in his sparking eyes,...


Jim Kiley said...

The thing I liked in that section was the idea that quantity has a quality all its own. They took students and asked half of them to make top-notch careful excellent stuff in some period of time, and asked the other half to just slap together as many pieces as possible, in the same period of time. (I don't remember whether it was paintings or sculpture or what -- and my copy of Outliers is upstairs, and I'm lazy)

When the researchers compared the quality, the top pieces generated by the "do lots of pieces fast" outranked the "do one awesome piece" pieces.

I'm not sure how that applies to your television writing career per se but certainly the intensity of writing weekly TV episodes has got to apply that squeeze factor that the second group of students experienced.

Jim Kakalios said...

I think there is a difference between "expert" and "expertise." Gladwell is making a point, not a terribly deep one (a shock!) about acquiring expertise.

In my field, we don't make distinctions between experts - as everyone I deal with has put in well over 10,000 hours in their field. what I would call experts are those who not only know a lot, but know what they don't know, and are not insecure about it.

One of the books or articles about the early Bush administration claimed that one insider relayed to another that George W. Bush rarely asked any questions - because he didn't know what it was ok not to know.

I've had the good fortune to be around some Nobel quality scientists - some of whom actually received the prize. They will occasionally in seminars ask questions that to a grad student seem trivial, but upon reflection would indicate the crucial linchpin in the argument under discussion. Sometimes some very smart people will just ask "what's the so-and-so effect" - because that's how you get smart - by filling in the holes in your expertise.

Snobbery is just the public face of insecurity, after all.

Hey - my word verification word is "kings"!

Cunningham said...

John -

You definitely have to add your stand up career time to your writing career because telling a good joke involves all those elements of story we use every day - rugpulls, etc...

Jay Gischer said...

I wouldn't use the word "expert" to describe the thing Gladwell is talking about either. Expert is a much lower bar. 1000 hours can make you a black belt in most martial arts, 10,000 hours is what makes you a 10th degree black belt.

I would define the 10K hours concept as "mastery". Do you think you have yet mastered the art of television screenwriting? No, I didn't think so.

But what about joke writing? You've mastered that, haven't you?

Anonymous said...

Short Wisdom:
1) Showing up is 85% of life
2) Nearly all things yield to practice.

Mooney said...

My favorite definition of the word "expert" in any given field is "someone who has made all the mistakes."

I'm not sure if I've taken 10,000 hours to make all the mistakes I have, but I do know that I keep making new ones each and every day.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to calculate how many babies I'd have to have to be considered "expert" at breastfeeding. Sadly, I'm not near 10,000, and yet somehow my preemie kids gained weight incredibly fast.

Hey, I'm well over 10,000 hours into being a parent, so I guess I'm an expert at that. Unless an expert actually has to be good at it, in which case forget about it. My daughter has spent today being the world's biggest brat.

Okay, in all seriousness, I'm not sure how many hours I've spent as a copyeditor, but it should be over 10,000. I'm not sure that I can see that point as being the tipping point, excuse me, the turning point (Ha! See what I did there?) in my skill as an editor.

I really don't know how you define an expert. ::shrug::

marc bernardin said...

I've been playing first-person shooters since there WERE first-person shooters. And I can pretty much pick one up cold and be counted on to kill some shit. So I'll take that one.

And I'll leave someone else to claim "masturbation." I came to that one a little late.

kkisser said...

There's more to writing than just mastering the ability to put words on paper, or else I'd have been a novelist at age 18 when I completed my first attempt at a novel. There's theory and mechanics, and that comes from reading whatever you can get your hands on, in every genre, every media and doing research on the mechanics.

That first attempt at a novel sucked and will never see print but I learned a hell of a lot from it. Same from the next five attempts, before I finally got it right.

15 years later, I'm finishing my second real novel and I think I'm finally getting the hang of this writing stuff.

DA Madigan said...

::sigh:: My odd area of expertise is Game Mastering. Sad. Hit me with the Geek Bricks now.

I GMed my first game sometime in... call it early 1980. That was college, and I was the one in my clique that would always DM, so figure I ran 30 sessions a year for the next 3 years, 10 hours a session, which is a pretty good approximation, as we often gamed all weekend back then. So that's 900 hours... throw in another 100 hours for KILLQUEST, a game that the Late, Great Jeff Webb and I invented where you had identical maps in each of 3 pizza boxes and two players running teams of 5 superheroes denoted by numbered push pins on each map. You needed a GM to keep track of all the different heroes' movements on the master map, and I did that a lot, too, because no one else wanted to. Plus, GMing individual 'conflicts', when, like, Kurt would run Wolverine and Andy would run Batman and they'd fight each other.

So, up through 1982, call it 1000 hours.

Right around there people started graduating and moving out, but there was still a core group to game with. So drop it back to 20 sessions for '83. That's 200 hours GMing... maybe more, if you factor in a few hours every week prep work, but, still, call it 200 hours. Then around 1984 The Eisner Award Winning Comics Writer (who hadn't won any Eisner Awards yet) returned to Syracuse from New York with his first regular assignment, and also, with the CHAMPIONS superhero RPG system. So we started running CHAMPIONS... 4 DMs, alternating, whenever we could. Call that 20 more sessions a year. So another 200 hours. And now we're up to 1985, when I DMed hardly anything... maybe 30 hours total the whole year, as people were moving around and the old crowd was pretty well broken up.

But around then I started gaming fantasy stuff, not superhero, with an entirely different group. In 1985 I came back from Basic Training and created my own fantasy game, ran the first session in July. Changed that around a little bit, started running it regularly in January 1986. I've run that game, and, occasionally, a few other random things, for at least ten sessions a year every year since, about half the time much more than that (like, 48 sessions a year). Run length has shortened as I've grown older gracelessly. Call it 35 sessions a year, 8 hours a session, TWENTY THREE FUCKING YEARS... Jesus. 6,440 hours. Conservatively.

Add in the 1400 hours I had in superhero RPGs and you get... 7,880 hours.

However, for, what, 10 years of that elapsed time, at least, I played probably 2 or 3 hours in someone else's game for every 1 hour I GMed my own scenarios, and I studied how they GMed for... I dunno... call it half that time. So figure at least another... I dunno, call it 5,000 hours GM training/apprenticing.

So that's 12,880 hours GMing roleplaying games.


Now. I've written 7 novels and a memoir of my time in Basic Training, call it 100 hours for each, with seems fair. That's 800 hours. I've written... fuck, I don't know... 40 LONG articles on Silver Age superhero comics, gaming, TV shows and movies, and other geek crap, and probably 50 short stories/novellas. Approximate 3 hours each, that's 270 hours. I've blogged a LOT since, oh, 2000, and posted a lot of comments on other people's blogs. Written a fuck of a lot of email. Say 10 hours a week every week since 2000, that's 4,680 more hours pounding the keyboard, trying to put words into some kind of reasonably elegant and occasionally witty order for someone else to read and understand. That's 5,750 hours right there. Plus all the plots and scripts I did in college understudying the Future Eisner Award Winning Comics Writer, and have done since on spec or just for fun. That's... fuck. Got to be another 10,000 hours writing excellent entertaining funny ass bullshit I can get five different sources to 'publish' if I don't want them to pay me, and can't get anyone with the power to cut a check to even take off a slush pile and glance at.

All this, and a lot of the time in there, I've held down full time jobs. Not voluntarily, mind you. And the last four years, I've pretty much been a full time husband and stepfather to three daughters. And that last is a 24/7 deal, so, that's 34,944 hours being a husband and stepdad.

Huh. So I'm an expert Game Master, an expert writer (of crap no one will pay me for), and a Master Class spouse/parent... and yet, while I do feel reasonably expert at throwing a game scenario together and running it, or sitting down and pounding out a story in nearly any format not intended for adaptation into moving pictures, I'm still a rank goddam amateur at husbanding and stepfathering.

So which of these things is more demanding?

Or maybe I just suck.

DA Madigan said...

Let me correct my last slightly... since March, I've sold 16 copies of the various novels I've uploaded to Amazon's Kindle section. For all I know, some of them may have been bought by someone reading this now. If so, thanks!

My bestseller to date is THE FEAR MASTERS, a tale of a zombie apocalypse occurring in the late 21st Century and the three heroic sorts (one super scientist, two secret agents) who must save the world from the evil alien zombie rays. Check out a free sample at, if you've a mind to.

Theliel said...

That type of mention (10,000 hours) has come up alot at the dojo when we talk about mastery, that is a deep and full understanding a of a subject to a point at which when interacting with it everything is automatic.
Things just happen. When asked about it you can instanly *know* all the important variables, all the contributing factors and have 3-5 answers in a heart beat and looking for the 'gotchas'. Because a Master has the knowledge (known' things) and widsom (doin' things) and then spent alot of time reflecting (tryn'-ta remember what went wrong and why). As someone up thread said, a master is just someone who's made all the mistakes already and learned from them.

I'm only begening to understand what I'm on the road to mastry of, because I've been at the same job for 8 years now i'm starting to hit that 8-10k mark.
I'd like to say it's walking a frustrated, angry and scared person through a series of steps they've never done before without being able to see what they are doing but really it is closer to 'understanding at what emotional point the human at the other end of this phone line is at.'

Theliel said...

@DA - I find that GM skills (as well as RPG playing skillz) tend to 'cross-over' pretty well into other parts of life with a little modding.

also, i'm pretty sure i'm an expert of video games. Someone said fps, but really, any game, put it in my hands and all i'm looking for is the variations.
RPG - ok, what grows, what doesn't, what kind of system mastry do i need to optimize.
4x - what are the units, how much tech, how much does advancement pay off
fps - where's next weapon, where's crouch, where's jump, where's the 'sepcial sauce' (bullet tyme, grenades, use, etc.)

I had a sudden moment of MU when I relized why my wife has so much trouble figuing out what to do in a game, because it seems so intuitive to me.
*forehead smack*

DA Madigan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DA Madigan said...

>>>@DA - I find that GM skills (as well as RPG playing skillz) tend to 'cross-over' pretty well into other parts of life with a little modding.

I'm not sure that's true. When you're a GM, you're in charge, and the people who are gaming with you are all there voluntarily, and therefore, to some extent or another, have accepted your authority. That's a huge change from most real life situations... unless you're talking about something other than 'soft' skills.

You do pick up some management pointers from riding herd on a half dozen gamer types, and you do learn to improvise quickly. A lot of things depend on your group, and the rules set you're using.

It occurs to me that over the last thirty years I've held down something like a hundred plus temp office jobs, so I'm probably an expert at most general office tasks by now, too. Geez, that sucks.

Mary Sue said...

Odd Areas of Expertise: 12th and 13th century Christian mystics and the oeuvre of Joss Whedon.

And if I'm not at 10k hours mastering my Google-Fu, then I'm pretty stinkin' close, yo.

I find it kind of interesting, I'm going up for my CPSM (Certified Professional in Supply Management) here in another year. They're in the middle of changing the certification requirements from five years in the profession to three years plus a bachelor's degree.

Here's the thing, though: my BA is in BS (Behavioral Science). That has practically nothing to do with Supply Management. I feel like I've spent the last three years (about 6000 hours) learning a completely new language, and now i'm going to have to cram to become fluent by January to take the confounded exams.

mds said...

It seems to me that one could do something for 10,000 hours really stupidly, and gain zero XP from it. How this might apply to certain public figures is left as an exercise for the reader.

And Rogers, considering the quality of your work I'm not-HUUURK!!


Theliel said...

"I'm not sure that's true. When you're a GM, you're in charge, and the people who are gaming with you are all there voluntarily, and therefore, to some extent or another, have accepted your authority. That's a huge change from most real life situations... unless you're talking about something other than 'soft' skills."

Myabe it's my customer service job history as an 'expert' or at least subject expert that those who are talking to you buy in, otherwise they wouldn't have called.
if if they explicitly state otherwise. In fact, learning to tell when someone is having buy in and when someone is rolling through the motions is pretty important in my line of work, as is the ability to get them 'back into the game' as it were.
I've also found alot of expertise in the arguments in the 'but you never actually said that..' vein where someone (usually me) thought they were being crystal clear when they wern't, and the ability to see other people's point of view and get into their head.
Communication skillz are in these days, and I don't really think they'll ever be 'out'.

Theliel said...

"It seems to me that one could do something for 10,000 hours really stupidly, and gain zero XP from it. How this might apply to certain public figures is left as an exercise for the reader."

"using kung fu drains one of chi, and if you were to be empty and unable to replenish your supply you would soon die.
Mere resperation will replenish this vital resource, if only you know how to breathe properly.
Fortunatly, the first thing you learn at the monestary is how to properly breathe."
Guiding Hand Feng Shui supplement.

that sort of sentiment to me seems to be the essence of the 'girl next door' romantic dramady. The hero is so overwhelmed with going through the motions that they nevera ctually gain any experince as they perform empty rituals meant to fufil an unexamined but crtitcal need.
It's kinda sad when I think about it.

DA Madigan said...

>>>Communication skillz are in these days, and I don't really think they'll ever be 'out'.

Listening skills are important, certainly, and a long time GMing can help you develop those. But a long time GMing won't help you much in honing your negotiation skills, I guess is what I was trying to say.

Even there, yes, GMing CAN show you how to negotiate, assuming you start out with the wisdom to know that winning the argument is not always (in fact, it is rarely) the optimal strategy for keeping the game running smoothly. But it took quite a while for me to realize that, and I think a lot of GMs never get it. Most GMs I know have no middle setting... they're either always on 'completely rollover whenever a player bitches' because they can't stand confrontations and think 'babysitting' is beneath them, or they're dialed all the way into "You'll do it MY WAY because I FUCKING SAID SO or find another game, bitchez" because they're insecure little dweebuses and this is the only chunk of space/time they've ever found where they get to pull shit like that.

Finding a way to convince certain players that yes, their character really IS dead and while you're sorry it happened, that's not an apology, it's an expression of sympathy, and the positive thing to do here is roll up another character and keep playing, can be quite a challenge. A lot of GMs never get past either "Okay, okay, I'll resurrect the fucker, now shut up", or just "SHUT UP". One placates the first idiot while annoying any better sports in your group who took their own past PC deaths without crying about it; the second often ends up with empty seats at the table. Finding the shining path between those extremes... that's where you really earn the label 'expert'. And yes, those skills are applicable in real world situations, as well.

Glenn Hauman said...

I tend to think of myself as a utility infielder, a synthesist-- nobody's first choice for anything, but everyone's second choice for everything.

I correlate that to Scott Adams' observation that to be successful you either have to be in the top 1% of one field, or the top 25% of two fields and understand the intersection between them.

Or, as some other wag commented, "When nothing is certain, there is no skill more valuable than that of improvisation." (I'd say I got that from a TV show, but it never aired.)

paneme: the idea of flattening a sandwich on a grill.

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend Goeff Colvin's recent book on this topic, Talent is Overrated. Colvin makes a very strong argument that true mastery relies far more on practice than is widely assumed. He is careful not to dismiss the roll of talent, but, as he notes, beyond purely physical limitations (e.g., height in the case of basketball), the role of innate talent is surprisingly difficult to confirm. To me the single most fascinating argument that Colvin makes in the book is that the success of Mozart, widely regarded as one of the greatest natural musical geniuses of all time (recall the portrayal in Amadeus of the aimless fop who seemed to be channeling the music of God) can be explained almost entirely by practice, including the fact that Mozart got an early start and had an excellent teacher (his father).

If Colvin’s thesis is correct it has very significant implications with regard to what might be called the “star system” that is practiced in so many areas; in the world of business, for example an enormous emphasis is put on identifying people who are “talented” (Microsoft and Google pay substantial premiums to people who graduate high in their class at the best universities, as do law schools and the major consulting firms) before they can possibly have had a chance to engage in the practice required to develop real mastery. In his New Yorker article, The Talent Myth, Malcolm Gladwell describes the result of a sort of “star system on steroids” practiced at Enron; he makes a convincing case that at least some of the companies failure can be attributed to its insane over reliance on the cultivation of “talented” people.

Alex Epstein said...

I've done the same calculation, and I don't come out to 10,000 hours of actual writing, either. But writing is a more fluid thing than, say, writing sonatas, in that you can do many things that teach you story telling skills that are not screenwriting. I wrote a great deal of poetry in high school. I still use those skills refining lines of dialog. Classes I took that helped my screenwriting to some degree include editing classes with Richard Marks, acting classes, and all the computer programming I did. If you ignore the computer science, but count the editing and the acting and ten years working as a development exec, then I've got the 10K hours fo sho.

But you can't just tot up hours. You have to spend the time thinking about what you did, and how you'll do it next time. The hours give you the base, but you also have to apply your mind to it.

fliegr said...

More data points: My area of expertise (combat aviation) considers a pilot with around 500 hours in type "experienced", and instructors at both Naval Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) and the Air Force Fighter Weapons School will have between 1500 and 2500 hours in type. The only modern military pilots with 10,000 hours will be heavy drivers, when a fighter pilot hits 3/4/5K hours in the cockpit he's considered somewhat of a lucky freak. Even if you add in the hours of studying you won't get close to 10,000.

Re: convincing someone you're an expert vice actually being one, my ex-girlfriend is a working TV writer, and through her I heard many stories of people being hired through luck/nepotism/connections and then managing to string together a career despite being barely able to do the job. From what I've seen/heard, once you're in the door it takes some fairly gross incompetence to be kicked out of the club, and that kind of thing only gets noticed when you're given a position of crucial responsibility (showrunner, running the room, what have you).

Been a long time admirer of the blog, the political writing is especially spot on. Thanks for doing what you do.

JuJuCam said...

Let's see... I was born on 11th of January, 1985. That makes me 24 years, four months and nine days old, meaning I've lived roughly... carry the two... about 211 thousand hours. Am I an expert at life yet? Certainly I quite often remember to breathe, surely that counts for something...

In seriousness, in my chosen industry of theatre production, I take quite a bit of pride in being a generalist. I know enough about lights and sound and stage management to be able to handle all of those things at the same time on a smallish production. Whereas a lighting specialist might have trouble explaining or dealing with feedback, or a sound engineer could conceivably struggle to program a lighting board, I have enough know-how to manage either system at an admittedly fairly basic level. But it's a set of skills that comes in handy when a show doesn't have the budget for more than one technician - a not unusual situation.

I'll probably never claim to be an expert because I don't define my skillset that narrowly, but I believe that an expert and someone with 10,000 hours of experience are not necessarily the same thing. In my opinion it muddies the definition of expertise. To me 'expert' implies craftsmanship and knowledge. It doesn't necessarily mean grinding away at some chore until you accumulate a certain degree of practice.

NY Expat said...

While I'm skeptical that Gladwell really knows what he's talking about, I'm hoping he's right, because I'm determined to self teach myself Linear Algebra, and go back and relearn the finer points of Calculus via Spivak (used for my college's Honors Calc course -- I took the credit from AP instead. A mistake, but I was 17 at the time, whaddaya want from me?)

If all goes well, I'll be able to understand the research on expertise and know whether Gladwell's talking out of his ass. :-)

On the other hand, I probably got up to 5,000 hours of pinball, and got pretty good (won a couple of pinball machines in tournaments, made it to the finals of PAPA in 1998).

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