The Pursuit of Excellence

I find it interesting how so many people desire to be so good at so many things-

but when it comes to doing what it takes to master a skill, they don’t want to put in the effort necessary to excel.  A joke I found on the subject says that a tourist asks a local how one gets into Carnegie Hall.  The local replies, “practice, practice, practice”.  Working toward expertise is no laughing matter, however.

It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become considered a “master”, or in other words an expert at something.  David Moldawer, writer of the article Master a Skill in Stages at Life Clever suggested we might further break up the 10,000 hours into a series of levels, such as the following: 2,000 hours of practice might gain a person novice status, 4,000 apprentice, 6,000 journeyman and 8,000 adept status.

I’ve also read that those music students that never exceeded 4,000 hours of practice tend to go into teaching.  I don’t know the data behind this assertion, but this area of practice-makes-perfect has been researched to some degree, and you can find out more at yourbrainonmusic.com.

Let’s just say it’s true.  It really takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something.  What does that mean in practicality?  “10,000 hours is roughly equivelant to 3 hours of practice a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice for 10 years.” says Smyth Boone, a self-proclaimed metal craftsman and writer of the article Are You a Master Craftsman (10,000 hours theory)? at ArtMetal.  Once again practice seem to be a theme synonymous with becoming an expert.

There is yet more to differentiate beneath the big umbrella of “practice”.  Some practice sessions can be more productive than others- “active” versus “inactive” practice.  There is a big difference, for example, between studying alone and studying with a mentor, and between studying without focus versus studying specific things that you are trying to learn or memorize.  I would think it highly likely that the active versus inactive capacity of one’s practice would affect expertise as well as the hours put in.  When it comes to practice, sometimes less is more, if you’re using every hour to its best advantage.

We’ve established what it takes to achieve expertise- but why does it matter?

Not everyone is going to achieve expert-status at some life goal or pursuit.  There are just not many people who have a combination of factors such as access to necessary educational resources, determination, willingness to practice, availability of opportunities, and so on.  Even if these factors were present in the majority of people, there are other factors in life that can be limiting to individuals.  However, the point in expertise is not in becoming the world’s greatest expert, but (and this is an important differentiation) it is the pursuit of excellence. 

As Christians, we are expected to live in pursuit of excellence – not only on a spiritual and moral level, but in all our pursuits and doings.  Everything we do should reflect God’s glory to the best of our abilities.  Thus while we may not be experts, we should pursue expertise in as much as it does not conflict with all that is good, holy and praiseworthy.  By all means- practice!

It is important to realize that the pursuit of excellence is broad.  As humans, there are many aspects of life in which we should be pursuing excellence- managing relationships is one of the foremost areas of importance, as well as doing well in our gifts and interests, and lines of work and ministry.

In the the science courses I have taken in college (5 classes so far), the necessity of studying became very clear.  In the majority of the classes, students were expected to study for between 10-12 hours per week outside of school for each science class, in addition to lab and classroom hours.  This allotment of time we were told to sanction toward studying seemed mind-boggling to me at first, but became more understandable as the semesters would progress.

It takes time, effort and devotion to do well at something- and no, it’s not always easy.

I think one reason that people often believe that it is easy to get good at something is because they are not used to really giving.  Most people aren’t.  We just don’t live in a society where giving is all that important- but you have to give of your time and energy: invest it, if you want to receive a return or reward.  Also, many of us are spiritually weak.  We’re reasonably comfortable in life, with a few sorrows now and then, but mostly happy: how often, though, have you allowed God to truly stretch you?  A life lived for Him doesn’t have to be one full of frequent tension, but it may require something of you that has existed before the fall of man, even in the original Paradise- this thing called work.  Yes, the world will try to thrust brambles in your feet post-fall, but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to glorify God anyway.

Of course, there are some limitations to pursuing excellence.  God isn’t asking you to be perfect.  He doesn’t want your glory to become more important than His own- but He does want you to shine as a living example, a reflection toward others of His love.  You don’t have to be an expert.  But you can still be used by God in big ways.

It is a mistake of many young people to wait for God to make a big move in their life, while not taking an active role in the story He’s writing.  How can He lead you to Chapter Two of the beautiful story He has for your life if you’re not willing to take on the role He’s scripted for you now? (Which may include quite a few hours of practice while you wait for an opportunity?)

There are 168 hours in every day, roughly 119 of them when you are awake.

What do you really love to do?  How do you want to get better?

What are you willing to give?

And how will you spend your time?

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