Step 5: Understand what it takes to be an expert

In 1993, a professor at Florida State University by the name of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson published a paper entitled: “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance”. The study was conducted with subjects from ultra competitive, high performing fields such as: professional athletes, world class musicians, and chess grand masters, with the aim of determining how many hours of practice it took for them to reach expert level. Dr. Ericsson concluded that it takes around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in almost anything (the equivalent of a full time job for 5 years).

Unfortunately, this “10,000 hour rule” wound up being widely misinterpreted as: “It takes 10,000 hours to become good at anything”. I’m sure you’ve personally experienced when practicing anything that a pretty decent level of proficiency can be achieved in far less than 10,000 hours. So how many hours does it really take to become good at anything? In his book: “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast!”, Josh Kaufman sought out to determine how long it takes for us to learn new skills. Kaufman was particularly interested in calculating the time it takes for us to traverse the steep initial incline of any learning curve from incompetent to proficient, at which point the curve begins to plateau and further advances take longer to achieve. I’m sure you gathered by the book’s title that his conclusion was 20 hours. It takes around 20 hours of deliberate practice to learn almost anything and reach a decent level of proficiency, and any time spent practicing beyond that will make you better and better at it.

So what am I trying to say with all of this? Expertise is more often than not measured in the time you’ve spent practicing. Even then, how can you prove that the time you’ve put into something was spent deliberately practicing it? Sorry to break it to you but spending 5 years doing busywork at a software company will not make you an expert software engineer. I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to possess experience you can actually prove to have earned. Writing free and open source software not only allows you to prove that you have put in the hours, it allows you to showcase the result of your practice in the form of real, working software.

It’s time to start investing in your future and getting to work on building a résumé that’ll get you the job you’ve always wanted, and in time, will earn you the right to call yourself an expert.

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