There is a popular notion that a person must invest 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in a field or a practice. The idea stems from psychological research by Anders Ericsson. It’s a call for years of dedication to one’s craft. But we should also consider how we become capable, how we add a new ability to our practice.
I’ve discovered the mark to hit for this accomplishment: The 100-hour knack.
I posit that, with a 100 hours of investment into a new skill or practice, you can hit a tipping point, where you start getting more out of the practice than what you put in. You will reach a point of competency that allows you to keep getting better simply by continuing the work as opposed to struggling to figure out what to do or where to start. Using the skill will feel less forced and more natural, less planned and more reflexive. It’s like getting to the point of thinking nothing of jumping on a bike and riding off.
This can apply to all kinds of new abilities — public speaking, photography, writing poetry, playing a musical instrument, facilitating a group, acting, video production, wood-working, learning a new piece of software, or playing golf — where learning primarily requires gaining practice, as opposed to gaining knowledge. I make this distinction because knowledge-based tasks often require command of a large body of knowledge (say a language or medicine), that take much longer to understand and to reach a knack-level of proficiency.
I recently experienced this while sketching. Bernie Roth, the Academic Director here at the d.school, wrote a book, "The Achievement Habit", capturing learning from his life and long teaching career. In a somewhat last-minute turn of events, he asked me to create sketches for each chapter's title page. I’ve done some sketching and doodling before, but I was suddenly faced with creating a bunch of sketches for a real book. I had some painful moments (have you ever tried to draw someone doing a cannonball jump off a diving board?), but overall, I had a great time doing it. But more importantly, as I started to wind down the project, I unexpectedly found myself sketching for other things: my friend’s baby shower, my class syllabus, and more.
I eventually realized I had a new ability available to me. These normal situations in my life (the baby shower, teaching a class, etc.) were now opportunities to sketch. Sketching eventually became an essential part of creating excellent work. There was no longer a hurdle between me and sketching. It just felt like the right thing to do.
I had unwittingly reached a point where the effort became an asset. Now, the benefits outweigh the struggle, so I naturally turn to sketching often. It is a practice that is alive on it’s own, needing no heavy-handed tending in the form of sketching “classes” or instructional books. Instead, I’ve reached a point in my sketching practice where I can keep improving just by continuing to engage in the practice. I have the knack.
Thus was born the idea of the 100-hour knack. It’s a concept that can be incredibly empowering: it takes just 100 hours to get that knack, and then you’ve gained a forever-useful capability. But the 100-hour knack leads to, perhaps, a more important corollary: an acknowledgement that you need to make the investment, without satisfactory benefit, to get to this point. You will, in fact, put in more time, effort, and struggle in the beginning than the initial results would seem to justify. I don’t think there is any way around this; that’s called learning.
So, how do we push ourselves through this “pre-knack” period when the short-term calculus doesn’t seem to add up? This isn’t just about being “taught”. The primary need is to have a reason, a purpose, to keep working through those 100 hours even though it is hard and the results aren’t there.
Here at the d.school we strive to change how people work and live, to enliven their creative and analytical behaviors. Our strategy is rooted in creating learning experiences where students are put in the position to try on new behaviors as they advance their projects. In doing so, they learn the tools, but more importantly, they learn to work in that way.
Our students who are most successful in adopting a new creative and innovation practice are certainly inspired and activated while they are in our classes and workshops. It is what they do beyond our classes, however, that cements their practice – that helps them gain that knack. That means our job is not only to teach our students the skills and tools for their practice, but also to inspire and set into motion a practice that gets them past that tipping point, where the ability becomes part of them and they couldn’t imagine not putting it to use.
Illustrations by Thomas Both