By David Wright
“In fellowship, alone, to God, with faith, draw near: Approach his courts, besiege his throne with all the power of prayer.” -Charles Wesley
Those who study what it takes to gain exceptional mastery of any given field have identified something they call the ten-thousand-hour rule. These experts have discovered that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery.
Neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin puts it this way in his book This Is Your Brain on Music:
[T]en thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours per day, or twenty hours per week, of practice over ten years …[N]o one has yet found a case in which true worldclass expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.
For example, Herbert Simon and Kevin Gilmartin studied chess players to learn how the minds of experts work. They discovered that experts hold in their brains a repertoire of about fifty thousand “chunks” of memory—patterns of chess pieces on the board, sequences of moves, strategies, and their outcomes.
The Making of an Expert
These chunks are stored in long-term memory through years of practice and are retrieved when they are needed, based on the meaning that the information has been assigned. Through thousands of hours and years of practice, experts collect thousands of chunks of memory (information) and organize those chunks, not according to superficial rules or schematics, but according to the meaning they were able to assign to the information.
Experts are able to draw on this rich store of knowledge more quickly and more meaningfully than novices. They recognize patterns and accurately draw from long-term memory those pieces of information that allow them to act most appropriately in any given situation.
Novices tend to analyze problems according to surface features—those features that are most easily observable. Experts tend to analyze, categorize, and respond to problems on the basis of the deep structure of the problem.
One of the surprising discoveries they made was that this high-level functioning has less to do with the innate talents of the experts than it does with long immersion in their chosen activity. While it is true that talent is not equally distributed among us, beyond the basic level of talent that any field requires, what separates novices from experts is not talent but purposeful practice.
These observations seem to hold real promise for our practice of whole-life discipleship. When we talk about whole-life discipleship, we are talking about the application of godly principles to every area of our lives, not just to those areas that we typically think of as being “spiritual” in nature.
We certainly should aspire to be the very best at what we do. Might we also aspire to bring to our work a rich expertise in seeing, analyzing, and acting like Jesus?
What if Christians truly embraced the discipleship challenge of becoming experts in two fields—the work to which we are called and the application to that work of the holiness that deep and thorough conversion accomplishes in us?
Discipleship at Work
Discipleship isn’t a word that we normally associate with work. It is one of those spiritual words that seem to belong in church. But a disciple is simply a follower of someone. Becoming a disciple of someone means to follow that person, to make that person’s vision, values, and priorities one’s own.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be so captivated with Jesus that all of one’s life comes to be shaped by the personality, character, and priorities of Jesus.
If it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert, let’s assume just for argument’s sake that it will take ten thousand hours to become an expert disciple of Jesus Christ.
But where should we invest those ten thousand hours?
Let’s think about this for a moment. The first answer that comes to mind is that if I want to become an expert disciple, I should invest those ten thousand hours in spiritual activities like Bible reading, prayer, and worship. Over my adult lifetime, if I spend four hours a week in church and another six hours a week in personal spiritual disciplines, I will devote about thirteen thousand hours to these specifically spiritual activities.
But the more I think about this, the more I wonder if this is the best way to look at the challenge. This would be a great way to invest my time if being an expert follower of Jesus was all about what I did while I was in church and pursuing my personal spiritual disciplines. But while these certainly seem necessary and rewarding pursuits, my Wesleyan heritage teaches me that this isn’t really what makes me an expert disciple of Jesus.
The great Wesleyan revival demonstrated the truth that becoming a disciple of Jesus is just as much about what happens in all the other hours of my life as it is about what happens in the hours I invest in personal spiritual disciplines and in attending church.
So let’s look at that part of the equation. Over my adult life I will spend about fifty-two thousand hours working—fifty-two thousand hours in which to learn and apply godly principles to my life’s work.
Mastery of Work and Holiness
And what if these two arenas of life actually serve to inform one another? What if our mastery of our work is actually enhanced by our mastery of godly principles? What if our mastery of spiritual principles is actually made possible by the effort to apply them to our work? What if it turns out that there is almost no other arena better suited to give us mastery of our discipleship than the arena of our life’s work?
This, in fact, is exactly what John Wesley taught. This truth lay at the heart of the Wesleyan way of following Jesus.
Cognitive scientists tell us that experts amass a vast repertoire of experience, categorized by deep structures of meaning, available at a moment’s recall from long-term memory, and that they are able to apply that recalled information appropriately to the complex and numberless array of challenges that they encounter.
This is our discipleship challenge at work.
Perhaps holiness is the halo that surrounds us, without our even noticing, when we are living out both our professional and spiritual mastery in the daily grind of life, when we are deciding how to respond in godly and highly professional ways to the tumult of opportunities and challenges that make up real life in the workplace.
This is an adapted excerpt from How God Makes the World a Better Place, David Wright’s Wesleyan primer on faith, work, and economic transformation. It is reprinted here with permission from Christian’s Library Press.