The 14,600 Hours to Virtuosity

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  • 8/13/2019 The 14,600 Hours to Virtuosity


    March 17, 2008

    The 14,600 Hours to Virtuosity

    Thanks to the use of Frequent Flyer Miles, I flew back to New York City from Bucharest lastyear in Deltas nice BusinessElite cabin. Hanging out in the airline lounge before the flight, I metup with another traveler, a professional musician from New York named Hannah Chang.

    Hannah was the only person I had ever met that was carrying tickets for two confirmedBusinessElite seats all to herself. Technically, she didnt use both of them for herselfinstead,one was for her and one was for her cello, which traveled with her wherever she went.

    Hannah told me that the Bucharest Symphony Orchestra had commissioned her to come over andplay one 90-minute concert. She came in on the flight two days ago, rehearsed the next morning,played the concert, went back to her suite at the Marriott, and now was flying back to the states

    before heading to Argentina the following week.

    Hannah is a real-life virtuoso, a child performer who grew up in Korea, moved to New York, andturned pro. She travels all over the world, usually for a couple nights at a time just like inRomania, and gets paid to spend hours and hours every day practicing her scales and her Mozart.

    The Cost of Being a Highly Specialized Expert

    Flying home with Hannah and her BizElite cello made me think about virtuosity. What does ittake to be a real expert, I wondered, and what do you get in return?

    I just checked the price of a Business Elite seat on the Bucharest-JFK route. The cheapest one Icould find, manipulating the dates a bit, was$2,835. Multiply that by two, since there are noBusiness Class discounts for cellos as far as I know, and youve got a minimum of $5,670thatthe orchestra needs to pay Ms. Chang to come over and play for 90 minutes. And of course,thats not counting her performance fee, which is most likely in the low five figure range.

    If you want people to drop $5,670 on two Business Class plane tickets for you to swing intoBucharest and play the cello for a couple of hours, you have to provide some serious value. Youhave to be able to do something that very few other people in the world can do.

    The way you do that is by becoming a virtuoso.

    The time cost of becoming a virtuosowhich Im defining here simply as a measure ofextremely high expertiseis about 10 years of consistent training for at least several hours aday. This is the consensus view from a wide scientific literature on virtuosos from variousdisciplines.

    Roughly, this breaks down to 14,600 hoursover the course of a decade (4 hours a day, noweekends or holidays). According to experts who study the experts, If you spend approximately

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    14,600 hours practicing the cello, learning to be a surgeon, playing chess, or doing any activitythat has a progressive learning scale and can be evaluated by other experts, youll achieve thestatus of being a virtuoso.

    Yes, there are some disclaimers, and the most important one is that you have to have somewhat

    of a talent at playing chess or cello to begin with. But most virtuosos are not innate geniuses;they are instead highly disciplined individuals.

    The secret they share across their diverse fields is that with an investment of enough time, youtoo can get a Business Elite ticket for your cello and a two-night, high-paying trip to Romania.All thats holding you back is about 14,000 hours.

    The Case for Virtuosity

    Aside from getting paid to fly around the world for one-night concerts, there are other long-termbenefits to becoming a virtuoso.

    Perhaps most interestingly, virtuosity can lead to fame and the ability to branch out after youveachieved the initial recognition. The strange phenomenon of being considered a guru in a

    highly-specialized niche is that once you are known as one kind of an expert, all of a suddenyoull start seeing people look to you for your opinions about other, seemingly unrelatedsubjects. It may not seem fair to other people who know more about the other subjects, but its

    just how the world works.

    For example, look at Steven Levitt, the guy who wroteFreakonomics.In hisNew York Timesblog,he writes about all kinds of random stuff. A sampling of his recent writing turns out articlesabout the status of the penny, baseball, and global warming. Are all of these topics really that

    connected to behavioral economics, his base field of expertise? Perhaps in a far-fetched way theyare, but if he hadnt established his status as an authority figure, the chances that the NYT wouldcome calling are pretty slim. Economists arent exactly a scarce resource in the world ofcommentators these days.

    (Im not saying Levitt is unqualified to write about random subjects. In fact, his analysis isusually excellent. What Im saying is that he is now regarded by his audience as an expert on all

    kinds of things that have nothing to do with his original subject.)

    The same is true withThomas Friedman,who started out as a journalist covering theBeirut-to-Jerusalembeat and now opines about anything related to globalization, politics, and world

    affairs. Hes not always right, but he always has a huge audience ready to dissect and argueabout every word he writes.

    Traditional academics and other people who try to preserve their own claim to expertise love tohate people like Levitt and Friedman. They cant stand the fact that others are taking an insiders

    game to the masses and capitalizing on their status as recognized experts.
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    Therefore, you can become an expert in something and catapult to fame in something else. Butwait a minute is that what you really want to do? Despite the clear advantages, I believe its

    better for most of us to skip out on virtuosity.

    The Case Against Virtuosity

    Whats not to like about being a virtuoso?

    First, the true virtuosos life is a lonely one. Four hours a day is the minimumpractice timerequired over a full decade. Many virtuosos practice much more than that, and the habit ofvaluing practice over any other activities is ingrained from an early age. Some virtuosos may beable to live normal lives complete with a good balance of social activities, but many others viewthe absence of close friendships as a sacrifice for the practice schedule.

    Virtuosity also requires intense, sustainable concentration skills. Many of us from theA.D.D. generation, including me, are not cut out for this. I have a hard time concentrating on any

    one task for more than 20 minutes at a time. Despite thecurrent thinking on multitasking,I am aconsummate multitasker and dont single-task well. I think I could probably train myself toconcentrate for longer periods of time, but I dont think Id ever be up for 4-6 hours of the samekind of activity day in and day out with no breaks.

    Intense specialization prevents you from learning a lot of other things. If you want to bereally, really great at something, its possibleit will just take a set number of hours that youcant do anything else with. Before you tune up the cello, you should carefully think about howgood you really want to be.

    Its a deceptively simple consideration. To achieve virtuosity requires an average of 14,600

    hours. But to merely begood requires much less. How much less depends on who you are, whatyoure studying, and where you draw the line at being good enough.

    MusicianshipThe same principle held true when I was learning to play jazz music aboutseven years ago. My main instrument was bass (electric and acoustic), but Ialso played piano and several other instruments. With the otherinstruments, I mostly wanted to learn the basicsnot become a virtuoso, oreven highly proficient. I just wanted to learn to play the saxophone,

    clarinet, cello, drums, and various other instruments to a basic level. Once I achieved that, Imoved onand what I learned was helpful in my main goal of becoming a well-rounded jazzbass player.


    A lot of people know the first line of this quote from the English poet Alexander Pope:

    A little learning is a dangerous thing
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    Reading the rest of it puts it into better context:

    A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallowdraughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.

    Ignoring the archaic English words (Pope wrote it in 1709), this proverb basically means:

    Dont just learn a little, because then you may think you know more than you really do. Better tolearn a lot, and then youll be more qualified to offer your opinions.

    Whether you choose to learn a lot about a lot of things, or achieve true mastery of one subject,dont neglect your learning.

    Drink deep.