Outliers (Gladwell, 3 of 3)

During his Q&A, Malcolm Gladwell noted that he has yet to find an excellent example of a social phenomenon that does not follow an inverted U shaped curve. This prompted me to ask what I thought to be the most obvious question. What about mastery? If it takes 10,000 hours to master something, is there some point past that where you’re getting a negative effect?

Learning something new can be difficult at first, but soon enough it comes with steep initial gains. In “Mastery”, George Leonard describes how this can actually inhibit mastery because it produces a class of people he calls the “Dabbler”. The Dabbler is a person who bounces from one hobby to the next, each time experiencing the rush that comes with starting something new. However, once they start to plateau, they grow bored and continuously move on to something else. Leonard describes mastery as a series of peaks and plateaus, but these smaller ups and downs can be approximated into a smoother curve.

Mastery Curve

As you gain more experience, you eventually get diminished returns from your practice. The curve flattens out significantly after 10,000 hours, but is there a right side to that experience curve? Is there inevitably a downward trend? Gladwell believes so.

Think of someone who stuck with their profession past their prime and lost their edge. One might argue that a surgeon’s skills decline at the end of their career because of old age, but research shows that they are really just at the tail end of an experience curve. If you compare people of different ages who start at the same time and acquire experience at the same rate, they all go through the same decline in skill at the end of their surgical career, regardless of age.

Gladwell’s explanation was that at a certain point, masters cease to be challenged. Surgeons at the end of their careers make more mistakes because surgery becomes rote. That is why it is beneficial for someone to change things up a bit towards the end of their career. It keeps work fresh and exciting, mitigating the downward tail at the end of an inverted U shaped experience curve.

I would postulate that there is at least one exception to this inverted U rule, assuming Gladwell’s assertion about insufficient variety and challenge is the true reason for the downward trend. Mastery of an art.

Every master of a martial art whom I have met has told me a variation of the same thing: the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know anything. The depth of the possibilities of martial arts is naturally endless, thus a martial artist should always feel challenged. Capoeira is particularly interesting to me because there are so many varying aspects to it. It is a martial art, dance, language, culture, community…the list goes on and on. As a result, capoeira is endlessly challenging. I suspect this applies to all arts.

Since there will never be a shortage of variety and challenges in the pursuit of mastery of an art, there should never be a point beyond which more experience hinders an individual’s skill level. After all, if you think you’ve run out of challenges, you can always try riding your bicycle from Berkeley to Bahia…



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