Smart and Deliberative Practice

Source: Peter Norvig: Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

Peter Norvig is a leading American computer scientist, expert on artificial intelligence and the Director of Research at Google Inc.

Researchers (Bloom (1985), Bryan & Harter (1899), Hayes (1989), Simmon & Chase (1973)) have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, telegraph operation, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again. There appear to be no real shortcuts: even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years before he began to produce world-class music. In another genre, the Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967.

Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the idea, although he concentrates on 10,000 hours, not 10 years. Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) had another metric: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” (He didn’t anticipate that with digital cameras, some people can reach that mark in a week.) True expertise may take a lifetime: Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said “Excellence in any department can be attained only by the labor of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at a lesser price.” And Chaucer (1340-1400) complained “the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” Hippocrates (c. 400BC) is known for the excerpt “ars longa, vita brevis”, which is part of the longer quotation “Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile”, which in English renders as “Life is short, [the] craft long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.” Of course, no single number can be the final answer: it doesn’t seem reasonable to assume that all skills (e.g., programming, chess playing, checkers playing, and music playing) could all require exactly the same amount of time to master, nor that all people will take exactly the same amount of time. As Prof. K. Anders Ericsson puts it, “In most domains it’s remarkable how much time even the most talented individuals need in order to reach the highest levels of performance. The 10,000 hour number just gives you a sense that we’re talking years of 10 to 20 hours a week which those who some people would argue are the most innately talented individuals still need to get to the highest level.”

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