Invariably, when I take some kind of assessments of my personal character strengths, “Love of Learning” comes up at the top of the list. As a true “life-long learner”, at different times in my life I have pursued a broad range of personal passions. I was a competitive swimmer, avid cyclist, and eventually a triathlete. I’ve learned to play guitar (and want to learn conga drumming.) I was a martial artist, getting black belts in both Hapkido and Tang Soo Do, while dabbling in many other styles. I spent several years reading and memorizing my favorite poems. I am still an avid reader and writer, but now with more of a focus on psychology (as evidenced by this blog.) I spent a few years in Mexico, where I became quite talented (for a gringo) at salsa dancing. During that time I also became fluent in Spanish and have since learned French and am now studying Chinese. When I go on vacation, I love to surf (one of the hardest things to master—after 10 years I still feel like a beginner.) Occasionally, I snowboard, which I’m finally getting some proficiency with. And perhaps my greatest passion (at least right now) is beach volleyball, which I play whenever I can.
I don’t list these accomplishments as evidence of personal greatness. In fact, in most of these activities I would describe myself as “good but not great.” My interests have been too diverse and too scattered for me to develop true mastery in any one domain. I am a true “Jack of all trades,” or as my friends in Mexico would say, “a todo le tiro pero a nada le pego” (I shoot at everything, but I hit nothing.)
Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers, most people are now familiar with Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hour rule” which states that the key difference between the beginners and the experts in any domain is the number of hours of “deliberate practice” that they have put in. In other words, anyone can achieve mastery in just about any subject, by spending 10,000 hours (approximately 3 hours a day for 10 years) toiling at their craft.
It is difficult for me to claim mastery in any of my interests since my passions seem to wax, wane and move on to new interests every few years or so. Perhaps the martial arts are where I came closest to this level of mastery, having achieved two black belts. But most laypeople overestimate the significance of a black belt. It is an indication of skill and signifies a sufficient level of expertise to become a teacher, but most seasoned martial artists recognize it as only a beginning step on the pathway to true mastery.
I remember when I read Outliers, which seems to present this kind of elite “10,000-hour” mastery and success as something that everyone should strive for, I came away thinking, “why?” Does an elite professional volleyball player truly have a better life than a guy (like me) who gathers together with a bunch of weekend warriors for a more recreational version of the game? Maybe yes, maybe no.
It may be that their sense of accomplishment in the sport is truly great, and I started my volleyball career too late in life (in my 30s) to ever experience the game at this transcendental level. But they will have the challenge, as they age, of feeling their skills slip away. Because I did start later in life, I can enjoy the satisfaction of playing better now, in my 40s, than I did in my younger years.
And those elite volleyball players, while certainly receiving more accolades and recognition than I ever will, may never know the joy of twirling around the dance floor with an accomplished salsa dancer, or playing “Blackbird” on the guitar, or reading the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his original language.
In other words, there is an opportunity cost of mastery—the sacrifices one makes along the way in pursuit of excellence. The 10,000 hour rule is important for achieving mastery. But for quality of life, I’m not so sure. It might be better to be a Jack of all trades.
References and recommended reading:
Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Bantam.
Gladwell, M. (2011). Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books.