I’m looking forward to reading Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman, and was pleased to find an extract of a talk he chaired at the London Literature Festival in the September-October issue of Crafts magazine. What interests me most is his exploration of the 10,000-hour rule, which is a calculation applicable to all areas of expertise (whether craft-related or not). It states that generally speaking, a person needs to apply 10,000 hours of study, engagement, and practice to become skilled enough to be called an expert in that area.
My interest in crafts being so broad, this kind of calculation makes me tremble with a mixture of fear and glee. After having tried so many different art and craft forms and having become quite well-versed in some (I put in about 5,000 hours of dance practice over a period of 20 years) while proving terrible at others (I tried knitting once and couldn’t do it – but maybe I should give it another try), I fear that, in my mid-thirties, I might never become a true expert at any form of art or craft if I don’t pinpoint one specific practice and get my mind firmly entrenched in it. Then again, with so many forms to choose from – almost all of which appeal to me – I feel giddy at the possibility of continuing to experiment with all of them to a level that brings me from dabbler to accomplished, without necessarily becoming an expert in anything. Too bad the term ‘Renaissance Woman’ doesn’t mean as much today as it did 500 years ago.
10,000 hours is a long time. It’s 60 hours a week for 3.5 years, a schedule my husband is following right now as he pursues his PhD in American Poetry, after which he’ll be an expert on Hart Crane, the gay modernist poet who wrote the famous epic ‘The Bridge’. The same 10,000 hours might be apportioned as 3 hours a day (after work, before bed, or very early in the morning, working around a day job) for 10 years, which seems like a terribly long time. But if you look at the most expert craftspeople, they’ve spent this much time and more honing their skills developing their talents.
What I like most about this 10,000-hour definition of expertise is that no matter how you divide the time, it is always a slow process. You can’t attain an expert level of understanding and knowledge quickly, and you can’t call yourself an expert if you happen to do something well the first time you try it. It’s about a commitment to discovering as much as possible about something, which requires patience and discipline, but also experimentation and risk. It’s anti-instant-gratification. It’s also more rewarding. Like the Slow Food movement, it encourages us to take time over things and do them well.
In his book, Sennett also discusses problem-solving/problem-finding and concentration. I’m looking forward to reading it. If you can get your hands on a copy of Crafts magazine, it’s worth reading the extract from his London Literature Festival talk with Grayson Perry, Ian Bostridge and Marina Warner.