Does it Really Take Ten Thousand Hours to Get Really Good?

One of the photographers in an online community recently raised a good point about his frustration with street photography, how it's difficult to improve with practice and pointing to Malcolm Gladwell's theory of needing 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a specific task (discussed in his book Outliers). That got me thinking and after a little research it seems that the theory originally came from a paper written by professor Anders Ericsson in 1993. There has since been much debate about the importance of practice and how much natural talent might be a factor. Ericsson points out that 10,000 hours was simply the average from the studies conducted, with some individuals needing significantly more time, and others significantly less. Gladwell has since stated that he believes natural talent to also be a significant factor.

Other studies have since shown that the affect of practice on skill level varies depending on the activity, with more structured tasks with defined rules being easier to master through practice. So in that respect, technical proficiency in photography would be more directly impacted by practice than artistic expertise. Which would seem to make sense. It also made me wonder about related activities and how much of a factor they must be. How much of a factor would other photography experience be? And what about the fact that most of us have walked streets of our town or city for hours without a camera, sometimes observing (although often not).

I've heard experienced photographer use experience as a sort of barrier of entry, refusing to believe that a relatively new photographer can be as good as they are, even if they've been making the same sort of images for decades without much sign of improvement. I don't believe that. If a new photographer has a special talent for communicating through their images then I hope they're encouraged to pursue it.

What does seem certain is that deliberate practice is key to improvement. That is, intentionally stretching our skills and practicing the actions that we find difficult. Just doing the same thing repetitively is only going to lead to so much improvement, and there is always the temptation to revert to the activities that we feel most competent at and comfortable performing. The easy stuff that we know already. Setting limitations, seeking out hard projects, doing the things that others might not try, seeking coaching, learning from masters and peers, being honest about our weaknesses and working on them. These lead to real expertise.

Bushwick, New York, July 2015

Bushwick, New York, July 2015