Mastery Requires Hard Work (and Lots of It) But Good Work Doesn’t Require Mastery

“If people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful.” – Michelangelo

By now its the rare person who hasn’t heard that to be expert at something, to be a “master,” one must practice 10,000 hours.

Take heart though, you can be pretty damn good after a couple thousand hours.

And you can certainly be useful after 500 hours of practice at something.

Let’s not confuse functional competence with mastery.

One is who is functionally competent at something can certainly add value… and charge accordingly.

Is mastery a worthy goal? Certainly. But the idea that to be at the top of one’s game requires 10,000 hours of practice can have an un-intended – and chilling – effect on budding practitioners. People with valuable contributions to make, real art to make, might give up if they think that it’s 10,000-hours-or-nothing.

So let’s be careful with how we parse K. Anders Ericsson’s “discovery” (it wasn’t, as is popularly believed, something that Geoff Colvin or Malcolm Gladwell discovered (although their books were useful additions)).

Will you have to practice 10,000 hours to be masterful? Yes. Can you make contributions, and serve, (well) before that? Absolutely.


I know that I went off on a tangent with this post, not really addressing the intent of Michelangelo’s quote above, but I think the diversion was useful.

Yes, some wouldn’t be so impressed by Michelangelo’s works if we knew how much he worked – and failed, I am sure – along the way. But I’d still be impressed.

In fact, probably more so, because his beautiful work could be held in contrast to the stuff he produced along the way that we never got to see (but we’d know was part of his process… ).

So: work hard, practice lots and lots of hours, knowing that not everything will be a masterpiece, and that you will produce works of value prior to mastery.

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