As a rule of thumb, 10,000 hours of practice and repetition are needed to achieve mastery in a given field. This idea was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success.” I learned this from my tennis coach, who was trying to contextualize the work ethic required to become a strong player. It was an excellent pedagogical strategy on my coach’s end. Having a set marker to hit every day was very motivating for me. Even if improvement didn’t feel super palpable, I could place my faith in that semi-proven corollary and know that I was doing something right.
I did the math: Let’s say you practice around an hour and a half a day, a reasonable amount of time given the rigor of adulthood. To reach the 10,000-hour threshold, it’d take you approximately 18.3 years. I’ve barely been alive for that long. My parents have been driving cars for longer than that, but I wouldn’t consider them “masters” at driving. In fact, I feel like I’m a better driver in my two years behind the wheel.
Being a good driver means having a strong command of one’s car. It’s about knowing the perfect balance between safety, speed, etiquette and adaptability given the situation. But that’s such a visceral thing to gauge — it might even be subjective. Driving isn’t a competition, obviously; it’s a means to an end. Everyone’s just trying to get from one place to another. As such, that type of granular differentiation of skill might be deemed unnecessary (and difficult to measure). I know I just said I’m a better driver than my parents, but I’m just saying that.
In my daily perusing of the recommended page on YouTube, I came across a video entitled “The 4 things it takes to be an expert” by popular YouTuber Veritasium. In the video, he mentioned four factors that stimulate improvement: repetition, a valid environment (an environment with regularities, one that is predictable), feedback and “not getting too comfortable.” This answered my “driving” question; while my parents may be getting the requisite number of repetitions, they aren’t always sitting with someone in the passenger seat critiquing their driving mannerisms. The road is structured and patterned, but leisurely driving on paved roads with smooth traffic can make anyone complacent with their driving abilities. Unless they’re presented with the extremities of the road, driving flaws are hard to ascertain, which makes tangible improvement difficult.
Maybe the 10,000 hours of practice weren’t meant to be taken so rigidly. It’s not like you go from an amateur to an expert in that short span between 9,999 and 10,000 hours. Gladwell himself believed it’s a mistake to assume that this idea applies to every domain. Some activities require more than 10,000 hours of practice and some require only a few months of rudimentary training. In addition, the rule doesn’t take into consideration those who were born with natural acumen in a particular field.
So when can one deem themselves good at something? There are just so many variables to consider. My answer: whenever you want, given you’ve put a modicum of effort into it. You could watch “The Wolf of Wall Street” once and consider yourself a financial savant. Learn a few syntactic rules of Python and call yourself a programmer. Speak a few words of Spanish and call yourself fluent.
This isn’t easy. Maybe you’re capable of telling others that you’re an expert, but you know deep down that you aren’t so you feel like you’re putting up a facade. That’s the first step in developing the expert mentality, so I applaud you for that. Setting yourself up for exposure isn’t a trivial task whatsoever.
There are a few things I know I’m good at. I know I’m a capable writer. I distinctly recall my mindset after writing my first journalistic piece. I would reread this one article over and over again, infatuated with the diction and flow. After I had a few more articles under my belt and a little more experience, I looked at my first article and thought, “Wow, this article was horrible. Good thing I don’t write like that anymore.” This line of thinking is recurring for me, and even though I’m aware of it, I can’t help it. I’d feel uneasy if I published a piece I didn’t consider perfect, at least at the time.
This makes me sound like a narcissist. But is narcissism such a bad thing if you’re not putting anyone down? I can make the argument that being excessively humble does that. If someone complimented me on, say, my chess-playing abilities, I’d be better off just saying “thank you” rather than making the claim that I’m not that good at chess. Someone may consider themselves a more inept chess player than me, and putting both them and myself down simultaneously isn’t very productive.
Imposter syndrome, when one chronically doubts their abilities, has been known to plague even the most high-achieving people. Here’s the beauty of it all: If you claim expertise in something you’re objectively inexperienced with initially, you will steer clear of imposter syndrome once you’ve eventually demonstrated improvement. You’re essentially nipping any semblance of an inferiority complex in the bud. If you didn’t consider yourself an imposter when you were quite literally “an imposter,” you certainly won’t do it once you’re experienced.
For argument’s sake, let’s say there exists an objective “expert” benchmark. If you’ve mentally deemed yourself an expert from the jump, you will align yourself better with the aforementioned video’s four steps toward mastery. For instance, you’re trying really hard to get into a sport. Sports knowledge is often very esoteric, imbued with nuance that can’t really be obtained unless you’re actively involved in the community. It’s almost like a cult with traditions and norms.
You’re about to engage in a discourse with your friend about whether Lionel Messi is the “goat” (greatest of all time) after delivering the victory to Argentina in this past World Cup. If you preface the conversation with “I’m not very knowledgeable about soccer,” perhaps your friend might not consider you a worthwhile debater and withhold some of their best arguments. Feedback is necessary for growth, and there’s no harm in calling yourself an expert, besides potentially losing an argument
I’m not suggesting that you overly embellish your résumé (which has repercussions beyond getting your feelings hurt), but that it’s okay to stretch the truth a bit about your aptitude in something. Considering yourself “good” at something doesn’t have to lead to complacency. Academic elitism is real and everyone is searching for membership in different knowledge communities. Besides, your benchmark for expertise was probably constructed with unreasonable expectations. Remove your mental blocks, and you are an expert.
Rohit Ramaswamy is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.