🕰️ On Becoming an Expert

Reading time: 5 minutes. Also available here on Medium

Journalist, author, and public speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, once argued that the “magic number for true expertise” is 10,000 hours (Outliers, chapter 2). Though the 10,000 Hour Rule has been debunked (again and again and again), Gladwell clarified his argument in 2018, saying something less controversial:

People have felt that the number is hard and fast and the truth is…it symbolizes this fact that the amount of time necessary to develop your innate abilities is probably larger than you think, so it’s…a metaphor for the extent of commitment that’s necessary [to gain expertise] in cognitively complex fields.

YouTube video, link here

Let me cut to the chase: I don’t particularly care how ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ Malcolm Gladwell is. That said, as a first year PhD student, I do think there’s a motivating and worthwhile insight for others in my position to take away from Gladwell’s sentiments: keep. going. you. shiny. brilliant. star.

Getting to 10,000 Hours

When I learned about the ⏲️ Pomodoro Technique during my first week of graduate school, I knew pretty immediately it was going to be essential for my longevity and sustainability. In a nutshell, it works like this to help improve focus and productivity: (1) set a timer for 25 minutes, (2) focus on your work/task/hobby until the timer goes off, (3) take a 5 minute break, (4) wash, rinse, repeat. On the 4th round (and subsequent multiples) of this sequence, take a 15 minute break – and then get back to it.

To help motivate myself to stick with the Pomodoro Technique, I cozied up with the reward center in my brain and started making checkmarks at the end of each set of 25 minutes. I briefly thought about how cool (read: really nerdy) it would be to continue this pattern all semester and to ultimately reflect on the sheer volume of sloppy checkmarks I amassed in 4 short months. When 4:00 pm on December 18, 2019 rolled around, I scribbled the last checkmarks for my first semester of graduate school in my mini Moleskine. 😱 I did it! I really kept that shit up. See below:

✔️ Pomodoro Technique checkmarks from Elliot’s first semester of graduate school

Whatever you want to call this (neurotic, meticulous, a waste of time, fascinating — all are fair), let me break it down. Each checkmark represents 25 minutes of work. ‘Work’ includes: reading, writing, and homework assignments. ‘Work’ does not include: going to class, TA duties, extracurricular/other developmental activities, or meeting with professors to discuss classwork and research. Here’s how this narrow definition of ‘work’ in my first semester of PhD school shakes out across 104 active work days:

  • 1271 checkmarks
  • 31,775 minutes
  • 529.6 hours
  • 22.1 days

Screen Shot 2019-12-26 at 11.00.39 AM

Elliot’s first semester started on 8/26/2019 and ended 12/18/2019. They had gallbladder removal surgery on 11/01/2019. Bet you can’t guess when midterms and finals happened! 👀

Assuming next semester requires a similar level of work as defined above, I’ll finish my first year with 2,542 checkmarks or 63,550 minutes or 1059.17 hours or 44.13 days of ‘work.’ In the US, sociology PhD programs often range from ~5–9 years in duration. I estimate taking ~6 years to complete my degree (with the first 2 years dedicated to my master’s degree). If I extrapolate these figures across the duration of my program, I can anticipate spending about 6,355 hours doing the work of becoming a sociologist.

This is a faulty calculation for a number of reasons: I didn’t include time spent achieving my undergraduate degree, and I didn’t include in my calculation several other valid forms of ‘work.’ I also can’t anticipate how my hours of work per day will change after 3 years when my core courses and comprehensive exams are complete. In short: I’m making a lot of assumptions, but let’s go with it. At the end of my 6-year PhD program, I’ll have invested 6,355 hours of work into, as Gladwell says, “the extent of commitment that’s necessary [to gain expertise] in cognitively complex fields.”

So, what’s the takeaway?

You know that professor you love — the one who is so smart, so nuanced, so brilliant, so cool? What you see is the product of years of cultivation and dedication. You’re on your way there. You will get there in good time, but you’ve gotta keep going. Not in the way that leads to burnout, and not in the way that’s unhealthy, and not in the way that’s unsustainable. Take care of yourself. Your health — mind, body, whole self — matters more than all the rest. But in the times when you are well and supported, keep at it.

Even after 6 years of day-in and day-out work, I’ll come up significantly shy of 10,000 hours of practiced commitment to my work and field. In fact, at my current rate of ‘work’ per 4-month semester, it will take me an additional 7 semesters (spring and fall) or 3.5 years after achieving my PhD to reach Gladwell’s 10,000-hour honorific. On one hand, this means many junior faculty haven’t hit the potentially-meaningless-yet-still-symbolic 10,000-hour mark and are still nurturing strong and vibrant foundations in their fields. On another, it gives some sense of the vast quantity of time senior faculty have invested in their educations, growth, research, and professions.

If you’re anything like me and several thousand graduate students who’ve come before me, being a PhD student can make you call into question even your most basic abilities. Next time you get that nagging, awful feeling of imposter syndrome and inadequacy creeping up from your stomach to sit on your chest and convince you you’re not cut out for your goals and dreams, remember you are so capable. You are so good, and you belong here. Even better: you deserve the patience, resilience, vision, and literal time it takes to hone your skills and talents to the point of expertise.

Cheers, friends! We’ve got this. 💪

🐦 @elliotbaebookco

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