Birthdays, 10,000 Hours, and the Myth of the Ding

My earliest “motion picture” memory is from the afternoon of my 3rd birthday. The footage is shot in a fish-eye lens, and a bit blurry, either because of the age of the memory or because I was always a bit nearsighted. I guess hindsight isn’t always 20/20, eh? It’s only a few seconds long, but there’s a bunch of embedded context attached.

We were sitting at the kitchen table. I was playing with a new toy I’d gotten, some kind of plastic action figure (“dolls” are girl toys), and some lady I didn’t know was talking to my dad. I found myself woefully underwhelmed at the fact that not much seemed to have changed that day.

I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen upon turning 3. Wings? X-ray vision? A car? Something to justify the big deal everyone was making, I guess. I was happy to have gotten toys and to have been the center of attention for a while, but I remember a distinct feeling of disappointment that not much seemed to have “turned” when I “turned 3”. I expected a ding.

The lady stopped talking to my dad and looked at me, saying in that lilting talking-to-a-little-kid voice, “And how old are you today, birthday boy!?” I liked being called birthday boy, because that was a Special Status, but even then, I hated that voice. I remember always being glad that my mom and dad never used that voice when they talked to us, and as an adult, I’ve made a point to never talk to children in that voice.

Aha, I thought (though of course not in these words). An interested adult who will understand and explain this strangeness. What I wanted to say, but didn’t have the vocabulary for, was something along the lines of So, what’s this all about? I’m supposed to be 3 now. Everyone said I’d change, that I’d be a Big Boy now, and nothing changed at all. Did I miss something, or is this “birthday” thing just a very silly custom that makes no real sense? Can you please explain it to me? What I actually did was hold up 3 fingers and say, “3. I just turned it.” and scrunched up my face like I did when something confused me and my mom would explain it to me.

But this lady didn’t explain it. She made some stupid human noises out of her stupid face hole about how great it was and that I’m such a Big Boy now, and went back to ignoring me. She didn’t get it at all! Either that, or she just didn’t care enough to explain it to me. Frustrated, I resumed working out my existential dilemma alone with my plastic superhero, now faced with the additional oddness that apparently some adults are not all-knowing benevolent gods like mom and dad. That’s where the tape cuts out.

I’ve met other 3 year olds since, and my hindsight tells me that I must have been a pretty weird kid.

Flash Forward 26 Years

Today (July 1, 2008), I turn 29 years old. Usually, a month or two before a birthday, I start thinking of myself as the new number, and reflecting on where I am in my life and how the last year has gone. In the last 26 years, I’ve gotten a bit more used to the fact that it’s pretty much just another day. No wings, no super powers, same empty “turning”. Granted, it’s a day that friends buy me things, and I get to do whatever I want without being hassled, but once you get to be about 20 or so, people tend to stop hassling you about your daily routines anyhow.

In reality, you don’t do all your learning and growing and aging on one day each year; you do it bit by bit every minute you’re alive, and just reserve a day each year to celebrate the process. If a little kid ever makes that scrunchy confused face at me about “turning” a particular age, I’m going to tell them this. It would have saved me a lot of angst that day.

This year, I’ve been busy enough with work and personal matters that I hadn’t really had much time to reflect on it. Today, however, something about it hit me that seemed to coincide in an interesting way with some other recent events.

A few weeks ago, a talk by Malcolm Gladwell floated into the “find cool stuff” network that I’ve built up (a combination of Hacker News, Yahoo! Buzz, and several valued friends and associates, all fed through my twitter stream). The talk was about hiring and the “mismatch problem”, and came around the same time that my manager was working on adding some people to our team at Yahoo. In another synchronous aspect to this story, just prior to seeing this talk, a friend of mine had mentioned Malcolm Gladwell to me, and suggested that I take a look at his work. Impressed by his talk, I found a free podcast of all the talks in the conference, Stories from the Near Future. Definitely worth the download time.

10,000 Hours

I don’t remember if it was in the mismatch talk or in his discussion of genius, but he mentioned a point that I had heard tossed around before. Apparently, in almost any discipline with a significant level of complexity, whether you’re talking about chess masters or black belts or neurosurgeons or tennis pros, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Doing your day job doesn’t count; those 10k hours only take into consideration diligent focused study, actively working to become better at what you do.

This works out to around 10 years, if you spend an average of about 3 hours per day at it. While our species does seem produce the occasional old style “lightening bolt” genius, to whom inspiration seems to come inexplicably from the ether, most “talent” is just work in disguise. Tiger Woods makes golf look easy because he’s spent so much time training. It’s not magic. If you threw 10,000 hours at the task of becoming a better golfer, and you’re in reasonably good physical shape, you would probably play at his level.

While 10,000 hours is a daunting figure, this is actually encouraging information. Many people go to college, and some time after, pick a career, and more or less stick with it for the rest of their lives. You may end up going in unexpected directions, but the basic skill set, the things that you would be practicing, people don’t tend to switch that. It also means that, with little more than a willingness to practice, anyone can become great at almost anything.

But you do need a willingness to practice. A lot. For 10 years. So it’d better be something your really love, or else you may as well quit now.

Thankfully, it’s not like you’d have to suffer through 10 years of utter n00bish novicehood. David Seah wrote a pretty good break down of rough levels:

Practicing Programming

Recently, Jeff Atwood wrote about “code katas” (reviving the old programming/martial arts analogy that programmers love, since it makes us seem way cooler and less beat-up-able). Back in 2005, Steve Yegge wrote about “practicing programming”. They’re two of my favorite bloggers, so I feel like I’m in pretty good company talking about this subject. Jeff Atwood is kind of like a “Steve Yegge for the masses”. Same basic idea, but more frequent and much shorter, kind of like when a good movie gets repackaged into an equally good but lighter TV series.

Steve Yegge captured the difference between doing and practicing pretty eloquently:

Picture the average amateur guitarist: A teenager. Messy hair. Cheap guitar. Plays alone, or for baked friends in bedroom in parents’ house. Knows a few riffs, a few licks. Can play almost every track on the first two Nirvana CDs. Puts on a good show for an hour, if you’re a forgiving listener.

The point that I think both of them make in their different ways is that, if you are a programmer, and you want to suck as little as possible, you’d better practice. Just doing your job is not enough, unless you want to waste away in anonymity maintaining someone else’s code base and doing one-off features whenever the business people make some new deal.

That’s the other hidden piece of the 10,000 hours message, I think. It’s not enough to put in your 10 years and attain mastery and be done. If you don’t keep practicing, skill will fade over time; the greater the mastery, the faster it fades. I once saw an interview on television with Yo-Yo Ma, where he said, If I don’t practice for 1 day, I notice. If I don’t practice for 2 days, the musicians I perform with will notice. If I don’t practice for 3 days, other musicians will notice. If I don’t practice for 4 days, the whole world will notice.

Clearly Ma was either exaggerating for effect, or he had an absurdly high opinion of the common person’s appreciation of cello mastery—he could probably take a few years off before my ears would detect any change. But the point is valid. Enlightenment is a myth. Every day that you don’t get better, you get a little worse. As you get better at something, this fact increases in relevance, despite the common sense belief that some day, you’ll be “so good that you won’t have to practice any more”.

So, you’d better REALLY love whatever field you pick, because you won’t ever be done training. Even Einstein kept at it.

The Past 10 Years

When I started college, I was a cocky 18 year old who knew almost everything there was to know about programming, and just needed to learn a little more so I could go out and do it. I’d been making web pages for a few years already, and was a whiz with BASIC. I added graphics to DrugWars on my Ti-82. My physics teacher only allowed a 3x5 index card of notes for tests, a rule that I circumvented by writing programs on my calculator for all the relevant equations; I remember finishing one test in about 5 minutes, and getting 100% on it. (She accused me of cheating, but let me by when I pointed out that I’d actually written the program I was using, so clearly knew the material well enough.)

My first programming class only encouraged this hubris. After Programming in C I and II, I could do everything there was to do in C as well as BASIC. I was unstoppable. I had structs and subroutines, I was running code on DOS and Unix and VAX. Sadly, I was also a bit bored. But computers were cool, and there was still a few things that I didn’t quite know how to do yet, so I didn’t change my major. After the next few classes, I’d be able to crank out any program that exists, that much was obvious.

Sophomore year was a humbling dose of reality. We started in on Big O() notation, complex data structures, tree walking algorithms, recursion, strange non-procedural languages, and a bunch of other concepts that were brand new to me. I’ll remember 19 as the year that I actually had to study in order to get good grades. To use Stevie’s analogy, that’s the year I stopped banging out Nirvana songs and started learning to read music.

Two or three years later, I remember reading Peter Norvig’s Teach Yourself Programming in 10 Years, which is still, in my opinion, the best “how to not suck at programming” guide that has ever been written. A lot of it was over my head at the time, but I’ve come back to it every few years or so. It’s brilliant.

No Ding

When I sat down to write about Gladwell and practicing and the 10,000 hours phenomenon, it occurred to me that I’d passed the 10,000 hour mark myself fairly recently. Partly because it’s something I’m just interested in, and partly because I always want to be better, I’ve been practicing for about the last 10 years.

Again, I heard no ding. No wings. No glowy effects to signify the XP bonus at the completion of the quest. Nada. Just more work, more practicing, more gradually finding one thing after another to investigate, more new nuggets that haven’t yet been cracked.

My conclusion is that the ding is a myth, for expertise just as much as for birthdays. 10,000 hours is a very approximate measure of what it takes to be good enough at something that you have to look a little harder to keep being challenged, and you can do a few tricks that impress novices. After 10 years, I still learn new things every day, I still get frustrated sometimes, I still routinely feel that sense of needing to catch up, still looking up to programmers much better than myself.

Even Newton said that he felt like a boy on the shore amused by the next interesting pebble while the great ocean of wisdom lay at his back, and that if he saw any greater distance, it was only by standing on the shoulders of giants. If there was ever a person arrogant enough to claim expertise, or more deserving of such a claim, Newton was it.

There is no ding. Just one day after another, in a gradual progression that hopefully leads in a beneficial direction. So keep practicing.