10,000 hours

In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

-Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

10,000 hours is a lot of time. By this benchmark, it will take me approximately 821 years to become an expert at peeing while standing up. Longer if my target is a hole the size of my chimbusu. 10,000 hours is a lot of time.

Speaking of a lot of time, it’s a popular saying that being a Peace Corps volunteer is a 24/7 job. Development is something we do when there isn’t a funeral going on or when it’s not raining or when the fish farming group still wants to work with the muzungu even after learning that he isn’t going to give them any money. However, this is simply a starting point for the conversation of what a volunteer does.

Because I am the only American living in a 70-kilometer long stretch of the second-farthest district in the farthest province from Zambia’s capital, everything I do and say informs what the people in my area think about Americans in general. To them, I am America. What I do and say is what all Americans do and say. As far as the people of Nshinda are concerned, all Americans talk to their cats, wear basketball shorts that are in perpetual need of washing, and are charming and witty and above all modest.

My role as de facto U.S. ambassador to rural Zambia doesn’t quite consume all 24 hours of each day; I read prodigiously and check college football scores on ESPN.com more often than the average bear. But I would guess that I spend at least twelve hours per day either actively engaged in cultural exchange or reflecting upon and reacting to it. And here’s something interesting: if you were to take those 10,000 hours and divide this total by 12, you’d get just over 833 days. That’s 119 weeks, or right around 27 months. The length of a typical Peace Corps service including training is… 27 months.

Coincidence? I think not.

By the time I conclude my Peace Corps service I will have devoted approximately 10,000 hours to becoming an expert in grassroots diplomacy. I will have spent 27 months learning, teaching, thinking about, and living in a country and society radically different from my own. I didn’t join the Peace Corps to save the world, but I might just come out on the other side of these 10,000 hours understanding a little bit more of it.


Sebastian's sons getting an early start on their 10,000 hours of fish pond digging


5 thoughts on “10,000 hours

  1. I love this perspective. It’s so important to remember that our job is not just doing projects but the 24/7 work of cultural ambassador.

  2. Pingback: 10,000 hours (Fishing in Zambia) | Little House on the Fish Farm

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