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10,000 Hours—That’s All It Takes

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 20, 2009 1:14pm ET

I wish I’d taken up fly-fishing years ago. By now I would have logged enough hours on rivers, lakes and streams to be proficient, maybe even an expert.

I’m often asked how much time it takes to develop expertise about wine. I’m afraid at times that I’m too close to the subject and cringe at being called an expert. Why? Because while I do have 30-some years of experience with writing about and tasting wine, I’m also keenly aware of what I don’t know and how much I learn every day. It’s one of those the-more-you-know, the-less-you-know realizations.

With wine, many of my colleagues are great at what they do and have vast knowledge about wine and the individual beats they cover. I know many masters of wine and master sommeliers. To earn either of those degrees, you not only have to be dedicated, passionate, a keen student and precise taster, but you also need to pass a test. I know many people who are extremely knowledgeable and experienced with wine, who I consider experts in their field, who have been unable to pass the MW test. (It includes both essays on a wide range of topics and blind tastings). I’ve never taken the test, but like I said, I already realize there’s a lot I don’t know about wine.

So how much time, or how many hours does it take to master wine? Or fly-fishing? Or golf? The answer seems to be 10,000 hours, by several accounts.

I’ve browsed through a couple of business books (Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Talent Is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin) which address this matter. Bottom line: Experts are not fundamentally smarter than the rest of us; they just work harder and smarter and apply themselves to the fullest.

I’m also aware of this number courtesy of my colleague, Matt Kramer, who wrote about this in Wine Spectator, referencing another book, This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin, who happens to be an expert on cognitive psychology.

I’d never thought of mastery in terms of hours logged. But if you want to join the ranks of the elite, be it music, sports, chess or fly-fishing, well, you’ve got to put in the time with a devout dedication to learning the subject matter inside out. Once you get there, though, you’ll discover how much more there is to learn.

John Leclair
March 20, 2009 4:35pm ET
James, if you ever make it down to South Florida look me up and I'll take you tarpon fishing. Bring your 12 wt.!!Standing on the casting deck of a little 16 ft skiff in 4 feet of gin clear water and hooking a 150 lb fish 30 feet from the boat on 20 lb. tippet and watching it immediatly go airborne 6 feet in the air is about the most thrilling thing I know of on the water. It's awesome!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 20, 2009 6:09pm ET
Sounds great, John. This weekend too early?
Robert Fukushima
California —  March 20, 2009 6:58pm ET
I am not sure what an 'expert' is. I have been fly fishing for nearly 30 years, drinking wine for just about as long (I might be an expert at drinking wine, not sure where I stand in terms of 10,000 drinks) and I have had a good time every step of the way. I hope to continue for a good long time with both. I do not believe hours logged is equal to thoughtfulness, commitment, desire or open minded consideration to all that there is to enjoy about any endeavor.
Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  March 22, 2009 12:29pm ET
I agree with Robert. There is a distinction between logging hours and having thoughtfulness, commitment and desire, whatever the subject. But in the end, there is truly no substitute for time, or as I prefer to refer to it, immersion. As a physician I have gained a tremendous appreciation for this. If someone put the amount of time into golf, wine, or flyfishing which most of my colleagues have given to their profession, most would call them an EXPERT, or at least a professional....
Jonathan Lawrence
March 23, 2009 9:07am ET
Time may be a necessary precondition, but I don't believe it's a sufficient one. In music we have the Mozarts and the Salieris; each puts in the required time, but only one demonstrates expertise. Aptitude is also required; as Kramer puts it, "You have to care about what you're doing," and caring is difficult without some success, though there are those flamboyant failures out there. But as always, I question the value of expertise when those who do not consider themselves experts go about trusting others when it comes to so subjective a judgment as wine quality (in all its facets). Sure, I have to trust the guys at the dealership to do a tune-up properly, but when it comes to wine I won't place anyone's judgment higher than my own.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  March 24, 2009 2:10pm ET
Coming from the perspective of academia, we often give the example of two individuals with 30 years of "experience:" the first with one year of experience repeated 30 times, while the other with 360 months of different experiences. As Jonathan implied, length of time may be necessary for perspective but it doesn't guarantee that one has plumbed the depths of a subject with insight and reflection. To me, an expert takes technical components of a craft to higher levels of understanding. I may be impressed by a wine "expert" who knows all the details about wine, but I only trust those who wrestle with understanding the wisdom of wine and then struggle to put that understanding into words!

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