50 Hours to Friendship
Four and a half decades ago, in a paper in American Scientist, Herbert Simon and William Chase drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:
There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…
In the years that followed, an entire field within psychology grew up devoted to elaborating on Simon and Chase’s observation—and researchers, time and again, reached the same conclusion: it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks. In recent years, Malcolm Gladwell re-popularized this idea of developing expertise in an average of 10,000 hours in his book Outliers. Gladwell was particularly interested in the question of whether one’s success in a given area was a result of innate talent, or if someone with no innate ability could, with enough practice, rise to a level of greatness in their field. What he found was that those who were truly masters in their field - whether in chess or playing violin or a host of other avenues - had some combination of innate talent AND an incredible sense of dedication to practicing and honing their craft. As he explained, rather succinctly, “achievement is talent plus preparation.” Gladwell also points out the importance of a second factor in this equation: “the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible.” It’s not only about talent and time, but it’s about the conditions and the people in one’s life giving them the ability to take the time needed to develop their talent.
It’s no surprise to any of us that to get good at something takes time - and, even more so, to get really good, maybe even great, at something takes lots of time. We often think about this in terms of specialized skills we need for our professional lives. We know that doctors and surgeons and engineers and lawyers and many many others really do spend thousands of hours honing their craft, and that this is true of anything, really, that requires repetition to build skill - whether our golf swing or our ability to play an instrument. But I don’t think we spend as much time thinking about how we invest this most precious commodity - time - in other areas of our lives, particularly in the space of cultivating friendships.
Now, I’m not suggesting that it takes 10,000 hours to become friends with someone, but a recent study by researchers at the University of Kansas sought to quantify just how long it does take to develop and build a true friendship, another important skill that requires prolonged practice and repetition. As Aristotle once said, “Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.” In his research, Communications Studies Professor Jeffrey Hall found that it takes roughly 50 hours of time together to move from mere acquaintance to what he calls a “casual friend.” After another 40 hours, the relationship evolves to a simple “friend.” And finally, it takes more than 200 hours before you can consider someone your “close friend.” This means time spent hanging out, joking around, playing video games and the like. Hours spent working together just don’t count as much, according to Hall’s study.
Clearly, putting in the time to building friendships is an important guiding principle, but sometimes figuring out how to fill that time can feel daunting. What will we do? What will we talk about? Even in platonic friendships, we still often find ourselves wondering: ‘Will they like me?’
Hall suggests, “You can’t make people spend time with you, but you can invite them...Make it a priority to spend time with potential friends. If you are interested in a friendship, switch up the context. If you work together, go to lunch or out for a drink. These things signal to people that you are interested in being friends with them.” Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a commentary on Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, echoes this wisdom, and, in a commentary on the rabbinic teaching “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend,” asks the question, How does one acquire a friend? Responding, “A person should acquire a friend for himself by eating and drinking with [that person], by studying Torah and debating with [them], by sharing private thoughts with them - thoughts regarding Torah and life. And when they debate matters of Torah and importance, one’s friend will respond to them, and thus the bonds of friendship and truth will be strengthened.”
Our Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of real friendships in our lives. In chapter two of Genesis, God tells Adam, the first human, Lo tov he’yot ha’adam l’vado, it is not good for a human to be alone.” In the Talmud, the rabbis teach, “Much have I learned from my rabbis (my teachers), from my friends I have learned more than from my rabbis, and from my students I have learned the most.” We see that friends aren’t just people who are fun to be around, but that there is much that we can learn from them - even more than your rabbis! Our friends are the people who walk with us as we journey through life. Our oldest friends are with us through our own process of self-discovery, or help us through the ups and downs of dating and finding a life-partner. But as we get older, and move away from those long-time friends, it can be more difficult to make new friends. It can be challenging to start up new relationships when we might feel more established in our sense of identity and grounded by families of our own, when time is one of our most limited commodities. But inevitably, we need good friends in our lives, and the reward is worth the investment.
We need people who will show up for us in difficult times. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, describes a scaly skin disorder known as tzara’at. We don’t know the exact nature of this disease, but it had serious implications for the affected individual. When someone was suspected of having tzara’at, the Israelites had to evaluate whether it was indeed tzara’at or a more minor skin condition. So, we read, the afflicted individual was to be brought before Aaron, the high priest, for diagnosis. This suggests that in this potentially isolating, fraught and scary moment, we are not supposed to leave someone alone. Rather, we walk with them to get them help, to be present in their moment of need.
As a synagogue community, we offer lots of ways for people to come together. Whether it’s through things like classes or lectures, or Shabbat services, or even the occasional dinners. These are great opportunities to meet the people in our community. But if you want to take it a step further, if you’re willing to commit some real time, we also have a wonderful initiative you may have heard of: Sh’ma Groups. These small groups, comprised of 8-15 members, gather regularly in each others’ homes, and, under the lay-leadership of a trained Group Guide, use a series of discussion guides and structured conversations to deepen their relationships, share their stories, and really get to know each other. We ask participants to commit to an initial six meetings, because building real relationships takes time. So far, many of those who have participated have found their experiences rewarding, and even long-time Beth Am members are meeting people they’d never known before. As one participant explained:
“I came to the pilot group to help out my friend who was facilitating and who needed one more person. I had lots of friends that I could call in the middle of the night if I needed something and so wasn’t really looking for more “bonding.” It took two sessions (now I understand the reason for committing to six), and I was hooked. Yes, this is a large congregation and I was comfortable with my own niche group but discovered additional richness, spirituality and meaning through our discussions in the ongoing months. When I think of what I could have missed, I am grateful that I didn’t pass up this opportunity."
These groups are a real chance to get to know the people in our community in a deeper way. Sh’ma Groups are not classes, and they’re not therapy either, but they do require that we make ourselves a bit vulnerable, open ourselves and our hearts up to the possibility of forging new relationships. On Sunday, May 19, you’re invited to come to a special info session, to hear from some of our Group Guides who have been leading successful groups, and to learn more about what’s involved in starting and leading a group of your own. No previous experience or expertise is needed - you just need to step up, we’ll train you in everything you need to know to lead a new group this Fall.
Participating in a Sh’ma Group might not fill up 10,000 hours, but what a wonderful start towards the 50 hours it takes to begin to develop some real friendships.
 Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 7a