January 30, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 1
Message from the Academy Director
What does it take to acquire expertise? About 10,000 hours.
There's a reason that concert pianists, chess grandmasters, and professional athletes begin practicing hours a day as children: it takes a lot of time to become expert in something. Natural ability is just the first hurdle. In reality, there's no such thing as a born genius.
In his recent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that researchers have concluded that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to attain expert-level proficiency in a skill or activity. What does this mean in professional terms? A "typical" work year is 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, or 2,000 hours. That means it takes five years of concentrated full-time hours — forget the time spent answering email, doing paperwork, or other mundane tasks that can eat up a day — to tally 10,000 hours. Given the variety of different tasks that we do and the reality of how often our workdays are interrupted, it might take more like 10 years for many of us.
I was reminded of this at Masters Forum 17 this Fall, when Vince Bilardo, Project Manager for the Ares I-X Upper Stage Simulator at Glenn Research Center, spoke about the difficulty of finding welders who could qualify to perform aerospace welds that would meet NASA's exacting standards for a launch vehicle. "Unless you are welding day in and day out for a living, it's really difficult to maintain the level of skills required to execute flawless welds that are going to fly on a flight test for NASA," Vince said. In other words, it takes 10,000 hours to be a top welder, just as it does to be a top software programmer, electrical engineer, or project manager.
From a professional development standpoint, NASA has to provide its technical workforce with ample opportunities to acquire expertise on the job. Over the past two years, I have asked roughly 200 senior practitioners at Masters Forums what enabled them to gain expertise in their work. Their responses have been consistent on one point: on-the-job experience matters most. The Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership is finding news ways to address this need. Later this year, we will launch Project HOPE (Hands-On Project Experience), which will offer opportunities for hands-on work assignments through a selective competitive process. We are also initiating discussions with senior leaders at field centers and Mission Directorates to explore other avenues for on-the-job learning and rotational assignments.
There's obviously more to becoming an expert than simply spending 10,000 hours on the job, starting with an intense personal commitment to continuous learning and improvement. But there's no shortcut around it.