Mastery through passion and repeated failure

How long does it take to become proficient at PI, or for that matter, at any discipline?  This is an interesting question, which I will try to briefly address in this post.

In his bestseller “Outliers,” Malcom Gladwell repeatedly gives a figure of 10,000 hours as indicative of how long it can take someone to become a master at a given aspect of a discipline.

The figure of 10,000 hours itself is not important, and it can certainly be debated, although it would be futile. Who’s to say that 15,000 hours would not be even better if you are a slow learner? Or that 7,542 hours might not suffice if you are very adept at internalizing new concepts and try really hard?

So, no, my doubt does not focus on the hours figure but on the term mastery.  In my opinion, no set number of hours can be given for mastery of a subject.  If you want to set a lower boundary on achieving minimum proficiency, getting the basics down, being able to perform a number of tasks with few errors, perhaps you will be able to do so.  It would then be reasonable to say that after a month-long course, and a series of exercises, labs, and even real-life experience for a modest amount of time, one is minimally proficient at something.


Mastery vs. basic learning: not more of the same

Mastery, however, is another matter entirely. Mastery is not necessarily on the same continuum as basic learning.  I refer here to my experience in meeting a number of professionals who claim “20 years of experience” at this or that, where it might be more appropriate to say “20 times one year of experience.”  Why? Because the people in question have not made the continuous effort to keep learning and pushing the boundaries of their knowledge, taking risks, experimenting and daring to make mistakes over the entire time-frame of 20 years. While these people had well over 10,000 hours toiling away at their chosen profession, they could not be thought of as having mastered it by any stretch of the imagination.

One could argue that making mistakes over a long period is not the recipe for a successful career in the corporate world, and one would be right. This, however, is a sad comment on the dim view the corporate world takes of learning — and by implication, failing — than it is a valid criticism of the supposed deficiencies of the curious and avid learner. Remember that Edison ‘failed’ many hundreds of times before developing the incandescent light bulb but always took the view that he had not failed and rather had found many ways of not making a light bulb. In other words, the many attempts previous to the final, successful one, were needed for him to learn enough to finally get it right. Without all those ‘failures’, and the learning that took place with each as well as his courage to continue in the face of broadly held skepticism by more timid souls, we might all still be in the dark, literally.

If we think about it, we see that learning the basics has an entirely different focus from mastering anything. The former involves coming to terms with a new subject, and much rote learning and ‘cookbook copying’ from the approaches of people who have come before, often without a clear understanding of what one is doing, and certainly with no capacity to add to the subject matter or to innovate.  Sadly, having reached a minimum level where glaring mistakes come along less often, and, in the corporate world, having achieved a “certification level” that suffices and is perhaps tied to the prospect of a promotion, many choose to stop, and move on to dabbling in another trendy topic and yet another certification. This is breadth at the expense of depth and for the wrong reasons, always a dubious proposition.

What we end up with is a plethora of multi-certified beginners-plus, who never quite make it to the status of masters of their craft because, among other things, their level of know-how relative to that of their peers in a very narrow area is enough for others to look up to them. In this sense, external stimuli to going further are lacking. That is, unless one is internally motivated by passion and humble enough about one’s know-how.

In PI in particular, the abundance of approaches and methodologies — Lean, Six Sigma, TOC, TQM, balanced score-carding, and on and on — and the lack of understanding by upper management that it is not so much a specific tool that is important but rather true mastery of any, makes matters even worse, as they adopt first one method and then the other, and never quite spend enough time actively learning, pushing the boundaries, ‘failing’ (yes, ‘failing’), and innovating on any one front to truly internalize what they have a superficial knowledge of.

Many do not realize that although a variety of PI methodologies exist, the fundamental questions that their developers were trying to answer are exactly the same. And, to this day, there are many ways of doing the same relatively easy things, while the difficult questions remain unanswered by all of the approaches.  While some problems are truly hard to solve, it might behoove students of a particular subject to focus on one thing and become truly good at it rather than strive for beginner-plus status at several things, because no riveting insight will likely come from this second approach. This, of course, is anathema to the multi-taskers, who act on several fronts at once while being pushed to do more and go faster by those above them, which mostly means upping the rate of mistakes.

I believe there is widespread confusion as to what truly constitutes being a master at anything, and specifically as concerns PI and the corporate world, where the increasing lack of a support culture willing to experiment, take risks, push boundaries, and speak up, dooms most to not being able to go beyond the basics while harboring illusions to the contrary.  It is not, therefore, a matter of hours. It is a matter of humility, attitudes, passion, dedication, courage, and being mentored and not penalized by those further along the learning path. This is something that so-called leaders everywhere would do well to keep in mind if they do not want to relinquish advantageous first-world positions to others who are hungrier and less fearful than them, and who are closer in spirit to those innovators that helped develop these advantages in the first place.














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