- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Are Habits the Enemy of Mastery?

In his book, Outliers [1], Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize the notion of 10,000 hours of practice. The idea being that it takes around a decade of consistent practice to become world-class at anything.

The idea of 10,000 hours evokes the sense that mastery is mostly a process of endlessly slogging away at a craft. What’s interesting about this is that the research [2] from which the idea is based doesn’t actually support this. Practice is essential, but not all practice matters.

Anders Ericsson’s research (which inspired the Gladwell meme) shows that hitting plateaus is common in skill development. Far from being a steady linear progression, mastery comes in bursts.

There are many causes of plateaus but a major one seems to be routine. Sticking in the same habits, whether it’s writing, programming, design or business often results in failing to progress, despite investing a lot of time.

The Catch-22 of Habits and Mastery

This leads to an interesting paradox. On the one hand, good habits are essential for building skill. If you’re not regularly showing up, every day, how can you possibly hope to invest the thousands of hours of practice needed to get good? Yet those same habits also have the cost of potentially stalling your improvement.

The concern isn’t hypothetical. As Benny Lewis explains in his quest to speak Mandarin [3] after only three months’ practice in Taipei, it’s easy to settle on a local maxima of improvement in languages:

“One of the key factors of ensuring fast progress [in my mission to learn Mandarin] has been that I have changed my approach entirely every week.”

The obvious challenge is how do you simultaneously balance the need for having baseline habits to ensure you practice regularly—while avoiding the possibility of wasting months of work without improvement because your process is stale?

How Do You Become a Better Writer After 900+ Articles?

I find myself asking these questions about my writing. I’ve definitely improved as a writer these past six years. But after having written nearly a thousand articles, how much more can I expect to improve by writing more blog posts to this website?

It’s easy to want to be a better writer. But taking the steps to push through your comfort zone is a different challenge entirely.

What would those steps even look like? Would it mean trying to write in a new medium, such as a published book or journalistic column? Would it mean deliberately forcing a change in my writing process? Applying the theories of skill development can often be tricky in practice.

The promise of habits is that you can automate chunks of your behavior so that willpower isn’t necessary in the long-run. What happens when the behavior you want is to continually break your routine? How can you sustain deliberate instability?

The Perpetual Tension of Getting Good

You might ask whether these are things worth being concerned over at all. Why worry about pausing along the road to mastery? Why not just enjoy process and avoid the strain?

It’s popular to laud intrinsic motivation and passion, and then conclude that if you’re not in a persistent state of Zen-like calm in your work then you’re doing something wrong. When I suggested that occasional burnout wasn’t such a bad thing [4], I got dozens of rebuttals that stress was a demon to be avoided at all costs.

The truth is, the psychology of stress shows that it’s neither all good or bad. Prolonged distress can be harmful. But there’s also positive stress, or eustress [5], which is healthy.

I think the paradox of mastery shows the inevitability of some form of tension if you want to excel at something. Persistent, intolerable stress is probably bad. But alternatively, staying comfortable in your routine is not best either.

It may even turn out that this tension is a prerequisite to having work you’re passionate about. Being passionate about your work also means you care whether you do it well. How can you be passionate about your craft if you’re indifferent to striving in it?

Is Living Well a Process of Mastery?

Mastery applies to the specific disciplines of your work, but it also applies to your life. In some ways, living well is a skill. Like any skill, it relies on not just broad principles, but nuanced wisdom that comes from unique experiences.

If the life-as-a-skill metaphor holds any weight, then the idea of persistent tension and the paradox of habits apply as well. In that case, there’s probably a degree of tension—of disrupting your habits as much as building good ones—that underlies a successful life.