The Expert Myth (or, Three Books Versus 10,000 Hours)

Oh to be home again, in old Virginny…

What constitutes expertise, whether it’s photography or anything else in life? If you do a quick Google search, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve essentially got two options: to read three books, or to spend ten thousand hours. Wait a minute, that can’t be right…

The “three books” scenario is a simplification of an idea popularized by Timothy Ferriss in The Four Hour Workweek. The somewhat longer version goes like this: You join a couple of trade organizations, read three bestsellers on your topic, give a free seminar at the nearest university and a couple more at big companies, write a couple of articles for trade organizations (maybe even the same ones you’ve joined), and then sign on with a service that journalists use if they’re looking for a service to quote for their articles.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? If you’re diligent (and a quick reader and writer), the whole process outlined above could probably be taken care of in about fifteen hours’ worth of work.

Here’s where that falls apart: let’s start with the books, since everything else probably stems from that (you want to be able to carry on a somewhat intelligent conversation with the people at ye olde trade organization, after all). With that as a starting point, I’m already a potential expert in any number of things, from the Spanish Civil War to Zen Buddhism, cooking, humor, architecture, philosophy, and the poetry of W. H. Auden, to say nothing of photography. So I find, say, a group of fellow Auden enthusiasts. Since the most likely place for that is the English department of your average university, I’ll sign up there and it ought to be a short step from that to giving a free seminar in Auden. Damn, I’m good! It won’t be long, obviously, before I’ve got Charlie Rose, the MLA, and the Associated Press burning up my phone, to say nothing of journalists and scholars wanting to partake of my expertise for the sake of their eager readers.

It isn’t rocket science, and certainly doesn’t take a PhD in Twentieth Century Poetry, to see that Ferriss’s idea is laughable on the face of it. So what’s the alternative? Well, the alternative’s also been popularized, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, wherein he suggests that to become an expert in something — and not just any expert, mind you, we’re talking about you being the Mozart or Jordan of that thing — you need to devote about ten thousand hours to it. That’s just four hours a day. Every day. For seven years. Or eight hours a day every day for three and a half years. Or you could go on some kind of amphetamine bender and not sleep at all, and you could “knock it out” at something like 24 hours a day for a year and change, and then promptly drop dead of exhaustion and malnutrition.

Let’s step back, take a deep breath, and consider a couple of things for a minute.

First let’s think about what these books are about, and what they’re for. Ferriss is neither the first, nor last, person to come up with his own little “system.” Thing is, Ferriss is talking mostly about “information products,” which is a polite marketing term for putting as little information in as large and glittery a package as you can, and getting people to buy it. When you’re interested merely in commoditizing information for people who’ll probably skim something once and then move on to the next shiny object/package, Ferriss’s formula, his three books’ worth of information, probably is quite enough.

Gladwell, for his part, wrote his book to talk about people who stand head and shoulders over the rest, and how they got there. The book’s called Outliers for a reason; these people are abnormal. In a good way, granted, but there’s nothing average about them. If you’re looking to be the Lance Armstrong of photography, then ten thousand hours isn’t an unreasonable amount of time to spend on your craft, but it rather begs the question of where that leaves the rest of us.

The short answer is to find a middle ground. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous quotation, from which this site takes its name (“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”) is probably a good place to start. That’s not to say that you’ll be an expert after the first ten thousand, or even the ten thousand after. However, if you’re not seeking to become some kind of photographic ubermensch, or to simply turn out commoditized crap, it does represent a happy medium. It sidesteps the “expertise” issue, to be sure, but it also allows us to comfortably and realistically master the medium while still accomodating the rest of our day-to-day lives. That, I think, might be more useful than the shortcut of a handful of books, or the headaches that come with aiming for thousands of hours. As an added bonus, it also allows us to cultivate a mindset that allows that photography isn’t something with a clearly defined endpoint; it can instead be a life’s work… one day at a time.

Postscript: There’s a different, and interesting, take on the ten thousand hour rule on Chris Anderson’s blog The Long Tail, which you can read here:

Meantime, if you’re so inclined, you can check out The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss here*, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers here*

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2 Replies to “The Expert Myth (or, Three Books Versus 10,000 Hours)”

  1. Both Ferriss and Gladwell have their share of critics. Ferriss for hard selling hacks/shortcuts that some people call cheats, Gladwell for presenting independent thought and conclusions as facts. But I find both writers entertaining and informative.

    I find Ferriss to be correct, but you’re right, some common sense has to apply. You have to consider your audience (professionals vs. newcomers), the depth of your subject, and your own background. If the subject is as broad as photography, you need to be a pro and have *written* 3 books on the subject.

    But once you start drilling down, narrowing the field to where 1 good book covers the subject entirely, 3 of them will make you an expert. Some topics in programming (a particular API or framework) might only have 2 books written on it. If I read them, then do a project using it, I could probably go to my local user group and present on it, which might lead to work. Keeping in mind that I’m a professional programmer, of course.

    For photography, I really don’t know what that narrow field is. A particular camera? A technique in Photoshop? I bet if you read a few books on how to get that vintage Polaroid look in Photoshop, many photography groups would want you to give a presentation.

    The hack/cheat that Ferriss has discovered is that few people want to read 3 books on one narrow subject, and far fewer want to do public speaking, talk to journalists, and write professionally on the subject. Perhaps sneakily, he doesn’t emphasize that it’s the last 3 that make you the expert; reading is just preparation.

    I will playfully point out that you have done an excellent job of taking his advice. You’ve read several books on photography, spent time in the field, and then created an “information product” for novices – this blog! Welcome to the world of experts 😉

    1. I should point out that I found plenty that was useful from both authors (moreso from Gladwell, but that’s just me). I think what gets under my skin about Ferriss’s approach has more to do with the approach than the author; I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, as are the other 20 thousand people putting similar shortcuts out there. The problem arises when people see the shortcut as the beginning, middle and end of something, rather than just one alternative approach out of several (and not always a particularly effective one, at that).

      And your point about the depth of one’s field is well taken… some aspects of programming are so esoteric, and the field as a whole changes so quickly, that expertise is paradoxically a lot harder (I’d imagine it’s a bit of a struggle sometimes to keep up) and also much easier, since, as you mention, it’s a much smaller circle of people looking for a much smaller set of solutions. Probably the closest analog in photography would, appropriately enough, be in postprocessing software.

      Insightful (and witty) as always. Thanks for dropping in. 🙂

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