The Difference between a Professional and an Amateur

Some time ago, I had a chance to practice archery with a bow and some arrows. I liked the thrill of this sport and had several arrows almost hit the mark in the dead centre. Just like the Figure above. Well, I thought, I never knew that I was so good at this sport.

Then, the concept of difference between a professional and an amateur started becoming clear to me, which is explained below.

It turns out that Josh Kaufman said that anything can be learned up to a reasonable level in 20 hours. In the best-selling book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field.

When I first heard Josh’s claim, I was quite surprised. How can something be done so well in just 20 hours? Now I can see that the difference between an amateur and a master lies right there in the numbers. It is very easy to start anything and almost hit the mark pretty quickly. The difference between an amateur and a professional is the journey from this almost hit the mark (here, the emphasis on almost is in space) to almost ALWAYS hit the target (here, the emphasis on almost always is in time).

The actual learning curve is a logarithmic one. As shown in Figure below, any amateur starts quite good and seems to have a special talent or be ‘natural’ in that field. In this region of the first 20 hours, they improve very fast and appear to hit the level of mastery soon. However, with time, the curve starts to flatten out and so little progress seems to be coming from a large amount of spent time. It is necessary to spend around 10,000 hours to get to a master’s level.

The learning curve

The law of diminishing returns sets in here. From Wikipedia: The law of diminishing returns states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns. Only professionals enter deep into that region and real magic happens over there.

The interesting point is that difference between two persons who have invested 2,000 and 10,000 hours, respectively, is not immediately visible. In reality, this is how almost hitting the mark for an amateur gradually turns into almost always hitting the mark for a professional.

Example of some other sports: In cricket, all it takes is a 1 inch difference for the ball to hit the middle of the bat and go for a six versus getting caught within the field. For baseball, this difference is even smaller. Various angles created by professional soccer and hockey players to score a goal come from years of practice. Ice hockey players take this mastery of precise angles to an entirely new level.

The same comparison can be found between a device designed by a senior engineer and a fresh graduate, or a surgery performed by a veteran and a junior doctor. This whole process reminds me of a great quote by a master comedian.

A Quote by Steve Martin

I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. 10 of those years were spent learning, 4 years were spent refining, and 4 years were spent in wild success.

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