The Proficiency Curve: Why You Can Only Be Great at One Thing at a Time

Simple Takeaway:

Research has shown that most busy adults can only be great at one thing per year and world-class at one thing per decade (outside of their full-time job). If you’re working on developing a skill or craft, focus is non-negotiable. Limit the number of things you want to be great at, and prioritize your time accordingly.

If you want to accomplish anything of value, focus is non-negotiable.

Scientifically speaking, you cannot be great at more than one thing per year and you can only become great at a few things in your lifetime.

Let’s look at two categories of people:

  • “experts” who are in the top 1% of the world at a skill
  • “skilled practitioners” who are better than most at a skill

First consider how long it takes to reach “expert” level at something.

Malcolm Gladwell is famous for coining the 10,000 hour rule, which he based on research from psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Gladwell proposes that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any given domain.

Of course, 10,000 hours is an oversimplification. The point is, it takes years of consistent, deliberate practice to become great at something.

Deliberate practice involves both improving the skills you have and extending the reach and range of your skills, according to Ericsson.

When you’re doing something as intense as deliberate practice, there’s a natural limit to how long you can effectively do so.

According to Ericsson, 2-4 hours seems to be the maximum effective range for focused practice in a day.

Famous violinist Nathan Milstein said, “Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] Professor Auer how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.’”

Other research has found that concentration starts to drop after about 50 minutes of focus.

So let’s say you spend 2 hours a day on whatever it is you’re trying to master.

To reach “expert” level, you could reasonably expect it to take about 10 years to become world-class.

But most people don’t need or want to become world-class. They simply want to be a skilled practitioner (who are better than most) at whatever it is they’re doing.

For that level of competency, there’s what has become coined as the 100 hour rule.

The 100 hour rule basically says that in order to become better than most people in the world at something, you only have to do it for approximately 100 hours.

The Learning Curve Theory backs this up.

Learning Curve Theory says that “a sigmoid-shaped [or S-curve] relationship exists between the amount of effort expended in learning and the resulting improvement in performance.”

In other words:

  • In any given skill, most people are beginners and have no knowledge
  • People with even just a little bit of training become exponentially more knowledgeable than the majority of the population
  • The hardest work of becoming an expert consists of practicing and growing in the remaining 10% of a skill

Here’s what it looks like visually:

The Proficiency Curve in Real Life

Consider the game of football:

There are just over 1 million high school football players in America.

There are around 17 million high school students in America. Just over half of those are males. So let’s say there are 9 million high school males.

Football is a predominantly male sport, so high school football players are better at the game of football than 88% of their population (1 million football players / 9 million high school males).

There are just under 100,000 college football players in America. Out of the approximately 9 million high school males, college football players are better than 98% of their population.

There are around 2,000 NFL players. Out of approximately 9 million high school males, the athletes who make it to a professional level at the game of football are better than 99.9% of their total population.

Going from an average high school male to a high school football player takes a moderate amount of practice – maybe a couple of hours a day for a few months (120 hours).

Going from the 85th percentile in football (a high school player) to the 99.9th percentile (an NFL player) takes years of work and exponentially more hours of practice (2 hours a day, 6 days a week for 4 years in high school and 4 years in college = approximately 5,000 hours).

In summary:

You can be really, really good at something within a matter of months with consistent, deliberate practice. But to go from the top 15% at something to the top 1% takes years of hard work.

So what can you be great at?

If you want to be great at something, you’ll need between 100 and 1,000 hours of practice. If you want to be world-class, you’ll need between 1,000 and 10,000 hours.

If we land in the middle of the range it takes to be great at something, we’ll get an average of 550 hours.

If the daily productive limit for deliberate practice is 2 hours, then it would take you about 250 days of practice. At 5 days per week, that’s 50 weeks of deliberate practice, or about 1 year.

Based on the research data, to become great at a skill, you need to practice deliberately for 10 hours a week for about a year.

There are 168 hours in a week. 56 of those are spent asleep (or should be). 40 hours are spent at work. 

That leaves you with 72 hours of available time in a week.

If you spend 2 hours per day preparing to go places and traveling to places, that’s 14 hours per week. If you spend 2 hours per day preparing and eating meals, that’s another 14 hours in a day.

72 hours – 14 hours – 14 hours = 44 hours per week left.

If you have a spouse, young kids, friends, or family that you spend time with, you can easily spend 2 hours a day during the week and, let’s just say 6 hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays with them. That’s 22 hours per week with on relationships.

If you only spend an hour a day on leisure activities like social media, games, screen time, or entertainment, that’s 7 more hours.

44 hours – 22 hours – 7 hours = 15 hours left per week.

That’s 15 hours per week that you can spend on crafting a skill or becoming great at something other than your full-time job.

If you want to become great at something in about a year, and world-class at it within a decade, you really only have time to dedicate to one thing outside of your full-time job.

You can only be great at one thing per year and world-class at one thing per decade.

Choose what you’re going to be great at and what you’re okay with being mediocre at.

Try it for yourself and see:

Proficiency Calculator: How Long It Takes to Be Great

Enter the estimated number of hours you spend each week on the categories below. Remember, there are 168 hours in a week.

8 hours per night is 56 hours per week
Please enter a number from 0 to 168.
8 hours per day M-F is 40 hours per week
Please enter a number from 0 to 168.
2 hours per day + 6 hours per day on the weekends = 22 hours per week
Please enter a number from 0 to 168.
2 hours per day = 14 hours per week
Please enter a number from 0 to 168.
2 hours per day = 14 hours per week
Please enter a number from 0 to 168.
1 hour per day = 7 hours per week
Please enter a number from 0 to 168.
Great = 550 hours of practice
World Class = 5,000 hours of practice (double this number for the 10,000 hour rule)