I’ve mentioned this model a few times on Twitter and after getting a few questions on how it works I figured I’d write a short post explaining this philosophy. In the book outliers Malcolm Gladwell outlines the principle of the 10.000 hours of practice that someone has to put in to become an expert on something. When learning a language we often focus on cramming in as much as we can about how the grammar works and as many words as humanly possible. You may need 10000 words to be fluent, but only about 2000 to be conversational.
The second principle is based on that once you have built a solid foundation, you can cut back the work and maintain that foundation indefinitely with a lot less effort than you had to put in while building it.
When we see examples of renaissanse men in modern culture, we usually get to see the finished product, a man in his late 30s to early 50s, who is a polyglot, a subject matter expert in his field, has multiple other areas of expertise, and a range of other skills that it surprises you to find out when he shows them off. However, we do not see how he builds his impressive arsenal of skills for the 20 – 40 years prior to demonstrating them to you.
Now, I’m going to tell you how to be a Renaissance man.
The baseline principle
The baseline aspect of my model is that any form of progress takes place in a continuum where skill increases often take place much faster initially and then slow down the longer you keep at something. For instance, you may put on 5 – 10 lbs of muscle in your first 6 months to a year of working out, but once you get closer to the top of your genetic potential, you may only put on 1 – 2 lbs a year if that. If on the other hand, your goal is to lose weight, you can lose 2 – 3 lbs per week or more initially depending on how overweight you are, but the closer you get to your “ideal body fat” level, the slower the weight loss will be.
This principle makes up the foundational aspect of the baseline-parallel model of learning any skill. Yes, you may have to put in 4 – 5 years for a masters degree, 3 – 5 years for a phd, and then do 3 – 4 years of post-doc to be a through and through subject matter expert, but once you have your masters you know more than most of the population.
Intense focus, and an obsessive approach to reading or practicing a skill up until you have practiced that skill for 1000 – 2500 hours (1 – 2 years @ 2 – 3 hours per day) will get you an acceptable practice level for most skills, and at that point you can bring it into your parallel regime, which is where you can cut back drastically on your hours, yet keep most of your proficiency at the skill.
The reasoning behind the baseline principle is that if you spend a minimal amount of time on something initially with minimal repetition, it tends to drop out of your mind quickly, and in the case of athletic endeavors you will not develop the CNS and muscle memory required to maintain easily. An example would be to spend 2 hours a month learning a new language. You will not retain what you studied in the 2 hours last month to the study session next month. However, if you study intensely, and obsessively for a short period of time, you will develop a good baseline that can then be maintained indefinitely.
The principle of parallel practice is where you make sure to practice the skills you have achieved a foundational ability in through 1000 – 2000 hours of practice, for a few hours every week/month to maintain most of your progress, while being able to allocate time to new skills or ventures. For instance, I spent a lot of time obsessively learning about diet, weight loss and weight lifting about 5 – 6 years ago, I still remember most of it and I can still apply the principles almost flawlessly. In a worst case scenario, I can go back, look at one of my journals and it comes back to me.
This allows you to become a renaissance man who knows many different fields to a level that is unattainable to most of the population, and thus increase your social value. You maintain your old skills, while developing new or complimentary skills. Depending on the skills, they can be easy to hard to maintain. For instance, a skill like cooking is easy to fit into your schedule, after all, most of us cook meals at home a minimum of 3 – 4 times per week. A skill such as skiing may be harder to maintain unless you live close to a place where you can get into skiing regularly.
The logic behind the maintenance principle is that while few humans are able to learn intensively and obsessively in multiple subjects at a time, we are able to maintain a range of skills over a long period of time with very little skill loss. This is where the expression about having learned to ride a bike comes from. I did a lot of swimming growing up, I didn’t swim for about 15 years, but I have no problem swimming at 70 – 80% efficiency once I hit a pool. Once I spend about 10 – 20 hours swimming, I regain most of my old skills.
All of us get the same amount of time, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days pr year. If you account for a normal job that takes about 2000 hours or so, add the same for sleep, and you’re left with a little over 4000 hours per year. If you just allocate 1000 of those (a little under 4 hours a day) to learning a new skill, and 1 – 2 hours a week to maintaining old skills, you can slowly build your Renaissance man arsenal over time.
If we go back to the 10.000 hours Gladwell spoke of, you develop the first bulk of those that also account for the largest growth in your skills in the first 1 – 3 years (1000 – 2500 hours). After that, you can reduce to 100 – 200 hours per year (2 – 4 hours pr week) and over 5 more years, you will be 1/3 of the way towards becoming an expert at that skill, but you will also have added 1 – 3 more skills that you should be getting close to the 3000 – 4000 hour mark in.
Most of us are unable to spend 40 or more hours per week practicing new skills, on top of work, sleep, and other commitments, but spending a few hours here and there to maintain, while having 1 main hobby is something most of us can do. If you think you can’t, look into how much time you spend watching TV or messing around online.
“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a regularly repeated statement in our society, and while there are limits to how many skills you can master, perhaps the goal shouldn’t be mastery for everything. Specialization to some degree is required for every path in life, if you wish to be a true outlier, it requires a very high level of specialization. However, human beings live on average 60 – 70 years if not more in the west, which is enough time to get the 10.000 hours Malcolm Gladwell outlined multiple times over.
Most people tend to stop learning once they hit a certain level, for some its after high school, for some after college, some keep pushing through grad school, or as autodidacts. However, a great majority of people do not realize their potential, nor do they allocate their time for maximum efficiency.