On Mastery… Guild President’s Letter

This article originally appeared as a “President’s Message” in the Northcoast Knitting Guild Newsletter, November-December 2018 edition.  My term as NCKG president was June 2018 – May 2019.  If you are in the Cleveland/Northeast Ohio area, our guild has educational and fun meetings every month, and many friendly knit-ins besides.  Check out our website for more information!  Northcoast Knitting Guild

What does it take to master something?  What skills or topics do you feel you have mastery of and what do you feel you would like to master?

I recently read an article that claimed that several famous successful people “find one hour a day for deliberate learning” (sources: 1), sometimes also called “the 5-hour rule” (sources: 2).  While I’m not going to turn into an Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates no matter how many books I read, I do think there is value to the idea that 5 hours a week of deliberate daily learning or practice can have an impact.  What would be the impact of 5 hours a week of deliberate practice in knitting?

On a good week, I probably spend about only 4-6 hours a week knitting (yes, this is why I rarely finish anything).  While I’m knitting, and I’m racking up inches on my current project, I am not typically spending all of that time actively learning.  If it’s a new stitch pattern, I’ll probably have the hang of it in a few hours.  If it’s a new knitting technique like beading, it similarly might take a few hours.  If it’s a sister needlecraft, it might take me way longer to feel fluid (I’m looking at you, Tunisian Crochet) because my base level of comfort with the craft is lower.  Shaping for sweaters, socks or other fitted garments is something I feel like I have to re-learn each time, because I don’t do it often enough (I haven’t made a sweater in about 10 years).   If that is the case, am I learning and improving while doing my typical daily knitting?

I would argue that I do still gain a bit of skill even when I’m just knitting along on an established or simple project, but perhaps at a slower rate.  While I’m a passenger in the car, or waiting for an appointment, I’m often paying a bit of attention to my tension and my speed. Sometimes I challenge myself to hold the needles or yarn a slightly different way, in order to improve my ergonomics and efficiency.  But less so if I’m watching an intense T.V. show, listening to an audiobook, or chatting with friends. Then my fingers are just moving automatically and I can’t do anything complicated.

But by contrast, when I was completing the TKGA Master Hand-Knitting Level I (sources: 3), I was much more deliberately and proactively learning about knitting.  Not just the hand skills, but also the various methods and reasons for shaping techniques, cast-ons and bind-offs, and the real knitty-gritty of gauge. During those days (in the B.C. or “Before Child” era), 5-10 hours a week of focused reading, study, and swatch knitting for a period of time was doable, and the impact on my learning was tremendous.  I felt like my understanding of knitting was leaping forward by decades compared to my previous rate of learning.

Another metric of mastery is the “10,000 rule” made famous in a book called Outliers (sources: 4), but building off of other works about expertise.  In this much-debated take on mastery, becoming an “expert” in a subject or skill requires putting 10,000 hours into it (sources: 5).  Subsequent studies have chipped away at this concept, demonstrating that the importance of amount of practice depends on the subject or skill being practiced (sources: 6).

So what does that mean for knitters?  While most knitters I have met probably knit at least 10 hours per week, I would argue, based on my own experiences, that not all knitting involves learning at the same rate.  I would say for myself, that I only knit with mindful aim to improve skill or understanding (rather than mindlessly knitting), about half of the time. So I extrapolate that most knitters, if they are getting about 5 hours per week of deliberate and thoughtful knitting practice, would take about 40 years to master knitting.  That sounds about right to me. Knitting designers and teachers probably get far more than 5 hours per week of focused knitting accelerating their rate of mastery accordingly.

Of course, mastery probably not anyone’s sole goal in knitting.  And gaining expertise isn’t even a desire for some. The act of knitting is its own pleasure, the product of knitting a fluffy and delightful reward.  Knit for beauty, knit for gifting, knit for charity, knit for calming agitated feelings, knit for thrift, knit for the love of fiber, knit to be part of a play of strings that has been a human art for centuries.  Mastery is not a necessary pursuit. But if you are pursuing mastery, thank you for sharing with your fellow guild members. We all have learned things that we can share, whether on the 100th hour of the journey or the 10,000th.

Sources:

  1. An hour a day for learning:  https://medium.com/the-mission/the-5-hour-rule-if-youre-not-spending-5-hours-per-week-learning-you-re-being-irresponsible-791c3f18f5e6
  2. “The 5-hour rule”  https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/317602
  3. TKGA Master Hand-Knitting program:  https://tkga.org/certification/master-hand-knitting/
  4. Synopsis of the Outliers book:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_(book)
  5. “The Making of an Expert”:  https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert
  6. “Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis”, Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., and Oswald, F. L. Psychological Science Vol 25, Issue 8, pp. 1608 – 1618
    First Published July 1, 2014 https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535810 

 

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