As I discussed a few days ago, if you spend 10,000 hours working on one task, you’ll become expert at that task. But, your goals are probably more complicated than that. Being awesome at your job, for example, is more complicated than a single task. Becoming an awesome typist and becoming an exceptional administrator on the top of your game aren’t really on the same scale of complexity.
Enter Dr. Richard Hamming. He spent his early career working with true masters of physics: Feyman, Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe. He realized that while he and they both looked the same and were working on the same project together, they couldn’t be more different. Feyman, Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe were masters. Hamming was not and he felt the contrast viscerally. So, he went on to spend a lot of his career searching for how one gains mastery. What is the difference between an expert and a person with some skill and knowledge? Hamming even went on to teach a very popular course on the topic and videos of his top lectures can be foundhere and here.
Hamming’s model is not easy, but that stands to reason when you’re describing how to do something as ambitious as becoming the best at something. He stated that the pathway to becoming great is messy and ambiguous. Basically, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours are a great starting point but it’s what you’re doing during those 10,000 hours that really dictates whether you’re headed for mastering your craft or not.
Dr. Cal Newport, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University who studied Hamming’s work on the topic summarized Hamming’s concepts: “Becoming excellent is not the result of a well-behaved tallying of hours, it instead emerges out of a swamp of roiling ambiguity.”
Newport has 5 working rules to greatness that he has put together after much thought about Hamming’s deep and difficult advice. I can’t do better than he in summarizing a few good guidelines to becoming a master:
“Embrace Ambiguity: You’ll never be fully confident in your approach to becoming excellent. Embrace this ambiguity and your ability to recognize it and still move forward; this resolve separates you from most other people who are fearful of such messiness and soon retreat to the comfort small projects with small (but immediately apparent) results.”
“Stay Specific: Always follow a specific written plan for becoming better, even if you’re not sure if it’s the best plan. Specificity focuses your efforts and gives you the possibility of growth. Without a plan, it’s difficult to progress. (I maintain, for example, a detailed strategy for stretching my ability to translate algorithmic insights into deep results.)”
“Tinker Often, But Not Too Often: Use moments of feedback — for me, for example, learning whether a research paper was accepted or won an award — to make educated adjustments to your plan. Don’t do this too often, however, or you won’t leave enough time to make progress. I find, on average, that I adjust my plan around once per semester.”
“Seek Resistance: At the core of getting better is deliberate practice — stretching yourself beyond your current capability. This work is hard and draining, but also necessary. Seek this mental resistance. If you’re not regularly experiencing long stretches of mind-melting hard focus, then you’re wasting your time.”
“Revel in the Craftsmanship: The path to becoming excellent is so long and messy that a goal-oriented motivation can only carry you so far. Top achievers find enjoyment in practicing their craft along the way.”