How to get great.

You’ve probably heard of “The 10,000 hour rule”. Malcolm Gladwell popularized it in Outliers —  in which he posits that it takes that long to become expert at any skill. Gladwell’s distillation of the science behind “rule” has been debunked since then. Not surprising, our own experience confirms that there’s more to the story.

Think about driving. You’ve probably been doing it for decades. If you commute for an hour, you’ll drive 10,000 hours in twenty years. So are you an expert driver? Really? Could you win a NASCAR race? Do stunts in an action movie?

Another example. Make dinner for your family every night and you’ll eventually achieve 10,000 hours of cooking. So, would that make you an expert cook? Could you open a restaurant, write a cookbook, win some Michelin stars?

If you sing in the shower each day, will you eventually be ready to win The Voice?

No. Because in each of these cases, you improve only until you are adequate. Then your improvement tapers off. You don’t keep getting better and better over all 10,000 hours. You may only keep improving until you pass your road test at 16 and stay at that same level for the rest of your driving life. You may still only cook at the same level as you did when you had your first apartment. Your singing, I hate to tell you, is still not ready to come out of the shower.

But why?

With each new skill, we begin with intensity and continued learning, but then the process becomes automatic. We lock into a way of doing things and stay at that level. If you keep practicing what you already know, same chords, same song, same recipe, you just know what you already know. The skill becomes automatic, but doesn’t progress to become expert.

You need to stretch.

Becoming an expert is a long journey of small upward steps. Each small goal, small skill mastered, moves you to the next level. As you practice your skill, it’s not enough to log the hours — you need to be purposeful. Your work requires a clear goal. And it needs feedback.

If you keep drawing in the same way, drawing the same thing, using the same tools, you won’t keep getting better. You need to push yourself, study great artists, set yourself escalating challenges, take more workshops, expand your repertoire. Your brain is like any muscle. It needs to be challenged to keep growing. It requires fresh learning. In fact, lifelong learning of a particular kind.

You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see why this works, but here’s a little science. Each day we produce 1,500 or so fresh brains cells. These new cells move to the areas where there is the most activity. And learning causes lots of brain activity and attracts these new cells to help out with the heavy lifting. So as you learn, you are actually changing the physical structure of your brain and developing a tendency to improve in certain skills — the ones you practice and learn. The more you learn, the more your brain develops, the more you are good at these skills. Stop learning and those cells atrophy and your skills level off.

So draw every day, absolutely. Log in those 10,000 hours. But keep learning, experimenting, studying, setting goals, getting feedback, and pushing yourself to keep improving.

Expertise is a great goal and it’s one you can achieve, no matter your ‘talent’, your background or your age. Just make sure you commit to A) working hard and B) always reaching higher.

9 thoughts on “How to get great.”

  1. Love this distinction — that it’s not just about putting in the time, but about the intention with which we do any given thing. There’s a difference in the quality + trajectory of the learning if we specifically aim to become a high-level “pro” versus if we work to achieve the bare minimum competence required to complete a task. One pathway isn’t better than the other, as long as a person is clear in their intention.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I believe this absolutely…and this is precisely why I decided to go ahead and do the People drawing People course. It is too easy to stop forging forward…and there lies boredom and lackadaisical fug. I think humans need to be challenged and continually open to new stuff…i particularly like when people say to me…what are you up to NOW…not always in a particularly friendly way…but the question, even slightly sneeringly put, makes me feel I am living! So here’s to reaching higher and not just stepping out of our comfort zones…but taking a good long run at it and canonballing over the edge!

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Nice article Danny, a bit confusing but nice. I like your writing and appreciate your efforts. Perhaps intention has a lot to do with how and what you practice.


  4. Yes, focus with intention and learning out of your usual range. Particularly, not “just going thru the motions” . Akin to athletes who workout without focusing on goals.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You’re so right, Danny. And now I don’t feel so bad about how my art changes from time to time. I wondered if I was just fickle and never happy with just one thing? Friends and family wonder why I am always trying new styles, new mediums, new ideas. You’ve explained why- so thank you very much. Maybe one day I’ll be great!


  6. Sage advice. I’m not a professional writer but do specialise in one genre. I am taking a course in another genre and it’s already helping me.


  7. Let me think, how on earth did I find this blog? I had joined a Facebook group called: ‘self-portraits on Sundays’; when somebody from inside of that group recommended that I come over here to learn how to control the so called, Monkey Mind/and, costant ‘negative thinking’. Anyway, all I can say is judging from all that I’ve read/seen so far…I’m really happy I took heed of their very friendly advice, and, came. 😉


  8. The distinction between working hard and working “smart”. And, when you combine the ethic (10,000 hours) with the a goal-driven, purposeful improvement trajectory—the sky’s the limit.


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