Outliers lite: what can I accomplish in 3,000 hours?
February 2, 2012 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm freeing up two hours a day in my schedule, and thinking about my mortality. In the next five years I'd like to spend that 3,600 hours to get really good at something in the area of music, art or programming, or some combination thereof. Which areas are most likely to show dramatic improvement with 3,000 hours of practice?

Background: I just turned 45.

My personal preferences would include composing electronic music, playing the guitar (I can strum about ten chords), learning to draw, improving my writing, magic or perhaps I should consider exercise or weight training. Difficulty level: I'd like to avoid a lot of initial startup costs and, ideally, at the end of five years be able to surprise my remaining friends and family with my acquired talent.

Let's assume for the sake of this question that I have already found a venue for serving others and the community.

Thanks, I realize this runs the risk of being rather narcissistic and chat-filterish.
posted by mecran01 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I would think that you could learn a lot of anything in 3,000 hours, but music is probably the area in which you're most likely to impress your friends. Programming isn't so exciting to watch.
posted by jon1270 at 12:27 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you considered baking? That is something that can show immediate dividends if you want to impress people. You probably already have the tools you need!
posted by infinitewindow at 12:33 PM on February 2, 2012

In the vein of exercise, perhaps use just one of those five years to train for a marathon? I just ran the NYC one last year, and it was an absolutely incredible experience. And all my friends were impressed, even though my time was considerably less than stellar.

I'm likely never going to run another marathon, so don't worry, the running "bug" everyone talks about won't necessarily bite you.
posted by Grither at 12:33 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

That is pretty inspiring actually and tough to do at "our" age. 2 hours a day at first I thought wow that is a ton, then I thought about the great internet/TV sink and realized 2 hours is simple. I just turned 41 so I think I might take you up on this challenge [ok maybe not a challenge to me directly]

As jon1270 says I think pretty much anything you do you will be a huge success at by the end of five years. Seems like music sounds good for you (I am tone deaf utterly) that or exercise just because it will dramatically improve your overall life.

As I think about it the ONLY important part really is do one thing, I find I want to "do it all" So I think a list of the best things (hopefully some other people have great suggestions here)

Also Look at: Cheesemaking (cost may be an issue), Piano, I love the idea of magic so I will mention it again, Sculpting, knitting...
posted by mrgroweler at 12:34 PM on February 2, 2012

I think the one you enjoy the most is the one that you are most likely to stick with, and thus the one most likely to show dramatic improvement.
posted by COD at 12:36 PM on February 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

How about languages? With that time you could become fluent in something impressive like, say, Chinese or Arabic. Plus, at the end of the five years you could take a trip somewhere they speak that language and really impress whoever's traveling with you.
posted by losvedir at 12:36 PM on February 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree that you should do just one thing.

I've seen dramatic improvement from 3 hours/week at the gym, and maybe another 1-2 hours making planning workouts and meals. So if I seen dramatic improvements in my 260 hours last year, you're sure to see some changes in your next 700 hours.
I look better, I feel better, and I can do some neat party tricks.

@mrgrowler - that's exactly where my time comes from - I stopped watching TV. People say, "hey did you catch last night's episode of SomeShow?" and I say, "No, I was deadlifting your body weight when it came on."
posted by jander03 at 12:38 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Difficulty level: I'd like to avoid a lot of initial startup costs and, ideally, at the end of five years be able to surprise my remaining friends and family with my acquired talent.

It won't take nearly 3,000 hours, but learning to solve a Rubik's cube really quickly is generally considered impressive. All you need to do is buy a $10 cube and learn one of the solutions, I personally recommend the Petrus Method because it's relatively easy to learn even though you can use it to get really fast times with some practice.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:41 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Must be a 40's thing -- I had the same inclination -- just turned 40 recently. If anything, I would say make your list more specific but keep the list, at least to start. You need ot find out what you want to spend long hours at -- what you'll be motivated to spend time on.

That is, what kind of drawing? What kind of writing? What kind of electronic music? And once you have what specifically you want to work on for each category, choose one and practice until you get bored or disinterested and go to one of the others. What you'll find is after a while you'll gravitate to the one which holds your interest, or you might find a theme that connects more than one and use that as the motivator to learn what you need from several disciplines.

When I analyzed my motivations behind my similar impulses, I realized that I was not seeking a particular aptitude, but simply a way of expressing myself. Learning music theory and the basics of drawing weren't end unto themselves, but ways of expressing stuff that I wanted to express.
posted by smidgen at 12:49 PM on February 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Smidgen: that is very insightful, thank you.
posted by mecran01 at 12:50 PM on February 2, 2012

Learn finish carpentry.

That way you can make long lasting furniture for you and your friends and family that will be cherished long after you are gone. Make a small brass plaque for each piece and mount it in an accessible but out of the way place so that your great-great-grandkids can bring it to Antiques Roadshow in the year 2125
posted by lstanley at 1:17 PM on February 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

You mention magic and exercise. One activity that combines object manipulation and fitness and would impress your friends: juggling. You can do it alone, but you'll make much stronger progress and have more fun if you seek out others. (That of course holds for pretty much all of the activities mentioned.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:18 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're going to learn to make electronic music, you're going to be banging your head against a wall for years before it clicks, most likely, unless you've had some classical music training.
posted by empath at 1:36 PM on February 2, 2012

Programming, on the other hand, you can get something useful and functional out of almost immediately.

Not saying one or the other is better, but it's something to keep in mind, depending on what your tolerance is for frustration and failure.
posted by empath at 1:38 PM on February 2, 2012

I tend to agree with smidgen. Make a list and zero in a particular aspect of the thing that seems most interesting to start with. However, I would also say: don't arbitrarily box yourself into doing That Thing for the next five years. For instance, if after a year of working on your guitar chops you start going to open jam sessions, and start to think to yourself "wow, I really like the way that mandolin sounds," and you find yourself wanting to give mandolin a try, go ahead and do it; don't spend the next four years looking longingly at mandolins because you're on a Five Year Guitar Pan.

Life's too short and there are too many interesting things to learn about, and I've come to the conclusion that if something really grabs your interest and won't let go then it's a best to just roll with it and not worry about other irons you've got in the fire. Otherwise you wind up in an unfulfilling grind because you feel obliged to stick with something, or feeling bad for not working on that other thing, or both.

All of that being said: you could improve your chops on a chosen instrument quite a bit with daily practice for five years. I think the key is finding some kind of external pressure to keep yourself from getting stuck on a plateau. I never played as well as I did during the year I got to play at a weekly open session, because every week I picked up a new tune that I wanted to be able to play the next week, and I wanted to keep up with other musicians I admired and liked playing with. Playing in a noisy room full of other musicians also freed me up to improvise and try new things, which is hard to do when it's just you and a metronome. MeFi Music is good , too; if you set yourself a goal of posting a song weekly, or even just working on the monthly challenge would help keep you on your toes.
posted by usonian at 1:46 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I like the idea of following what interests me, but in five years I want to have something to show for myself.
posted by mecran01 at 2:55 PM on February 2, 2012

We can't tell you what to learn. 2 hours a day sounds simple, but after a couple of months, it'll be a daily slog. After a year or so, it will be a routine that you either enjoy, accept, or resent. If you resent it, why keep doing it? So it's incredibly important to pick something that YOU really want to do. There are all sorts of things that I'd really be able to throw my heart behind for a limited time period, but 5 years is truly the long haul, so think about what you want to have happen 5 years from now.
A year's worth (700 hours or so) is enough to be pretty competant, 5 years enough to be good. Don't just think about what might be fun to learn, think about what might be fun to do. If you were a pretty good guitar player, would you want to play music with people? If you were composing electronic music, would it be satisfying to create an album, or would you want to be involved in a community and trying to distribute your work? You could learn some magic tricks in the first 6 months, perfect them in the first year or two, and you'd be getting into serious territory of props, and practicing your stage patter to distract the audience, which implies you'd be interested in practicing with an audience, or even performing, but what's it like to *be* an amateur magician?
posted by aimedwander at 2:58 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, that's questions, not answers - what I meant to follow with was, a reasonably good amateur (whatever) doesn't exist in a vacuum. You're likely to have fellow enthusiasts, colleagues, fellow artists, audiences, a market for the apps you learn to program, etc. Consider what types of interactions/communities are most appealing to you when you're considering what types of skills are most appealing.
posted by aimedwander at 3:02 PM on February 2, 2012

Response by poster: I agree in theory to the community of amateurs idea, but I have a hard time getting out of the house in the evenings by myself. No, not a prisoner or agoraphobic, just have four kids and a spouse, etc. My two hours will take place in the early morning.
posted by mecran01 at 3:49 PM on February 2, 2012

I have always heard that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. That doesn't mean 10,000 hours of doing something, but of actually training. The great musicians spent many hours each day for decades honing their craft, and that is what made them great.

However, from my experience, the first 1,000 hours can make you really good, with another 2,000 or so hours to make you great, and the other 7,000 hours are what make you stand out over all of the others who are also great. With this in mind, I don't think it's unreasonable for you to work towards several goals. If you keep your mind focused, you could learn to be a really good guitar player, and learn magic, and juggling, or whatever other combination works for you. This way, if you find that being a fantastic guitar player isn't your thing after 9 months, dropping it won't be a huge loss, because you still have those other things you were doing, and you can fill in the gap with something new.

Honestly, if you put in 45 minutes a day of really concentrated practicing towards anything, within a year you will probably be able to impress many people, and with a few more years you could impress almost anyone who isn't a professional at what you are doing.
posted by markblasco at 4:49 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

And keep in mind, playing guitar for 45 minutes a day is not the same as practicing. I've played guitar for many years, but haven't gotten much better in the last few because I am no longer focusing on improving, but rather playing for fun. If your goal is to become really good at something, than make sure your practice time is focused solely on making you better at the things in which you need improvement.
posted by markblasco at 4:51 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're going to learn to make electronic music, you're going to be banging your head against a wall for years before it clicks, most likely, unless you've had some classical music training.

I don't have a comment on what you should/shouldn't learn, but I strongly disagree with the above. One of the really fun things about electronic music is you can start goofing around with free or very cheap software and make stuff that sounds cool right away, with no musical background.
posted by SampleSize at 8:05 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is an inspiring question - I'm into my 40s and wasting a lot of time. I should do this too!

I had a colleague who decided, in his forties, to learn the guitar (classical) and train his voice - from scratch. He had never even been part of a choir, or sung at all. A few years later he performed a solo at a Christmas mass - it blew us all away. He was so goooood. I'm getting goosebumps thinking about it. I'd love to be able to sing properly and what I like about the voice as the instrument you hone, is that you can take it anywhere.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:26 PM on February 2, 2012

Best answer: I think it is more a question of figuring out which of these you *really* want to do... because when your kids get the flu one after another and someone has a sports game every night and your scout needs to finish his derby car etc, etc, etc, it is very easy to let your hobby slide. And then suddenly 4 months have gone by since you last picked up a pencil. Pick the thing you will be most excited about doing.
Better yet... pick 2 or 3 to focus on the first year. Maybe try to draw and play an instrument. At the end of the year, see which of those hobbies you kept up even when life got crazy.
In 5 years you would certainly play an instrument well enough to make music or join a band, draw well enough to have things to hang on the wall or give as gifts, write well enough to publish a story or two, or entertain dinner companions who are waiting for their meal with a card trick. ANY hobby can have a useful or 'wow' application.
A year ago, I thought I would never be able to draw because (at almost 40) I could only draw stick figures that would embarrass a 3 year old. Now I post my sketches on my blog, made a menu for my DH's bar, and make posters for school events. I kept going even when I really sucked at it because I was having fun and before I knew it my drawings started to look like something.
Life is short. Go for it!
posted by LittleMy at 7:44 AM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Grab guitar, pen, and paper, and start writing songs. As part of that, learn to play other people's songs so you'll keep learning guitar as you write. Also learn to write and record music on your computer. But the focus is the songs: learn to write good songs.
posted by pracowity at 12:15 PM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for these great suggestions. I recently checked out Gary Marcus' Guitar Zero about his attempts to move from total musical incompetency to skilled guitar player over a year. I've skimmed it, and he reconfirms much of what you're saying in this thread, such as being involved in a community, finding a good teacher, and improving incrementally, as well as having passion for what you are practicing.
posted by mecran01 at 10:07 AM on February 13, 2012

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
It is five years later and I am fifty. We ended up moving to Qatar shortly after this, for two years, and I took about 10,000 photos. I can see myself getting better, and the experience of living there has changed me. Thanks for all of your input.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:07 AM on September 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

« Older What should I use to carry my stuff?   |   Camping While Fat Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.