The Modern Accomplished Woman…Narrows Her Focus

This post is part of a series dedicated to updating Jane Austen’s “accomplished woman” to create a definition more fitting for the modern world.  You can read all the posts in this series here.

In Jane Austen’s time, an accomplished woman had all the manners and social graces of polite society, and the skills to prove she was well-bred and well-rounded.

But to Jane Austen, “accomplished” also meant to be highly skilled at something. And ladies grew accomplished at something–like music–by practicing.

Not much has changed in 200 years: we get good at the things we practice. Researchers say that becoming really great at something takes most people 6-10 years of devoted practice. Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers that becoming expert at a skill takes 10,000 hours of practice.

This means you can’t truly become expert at more than a handful of things, simply because of the time it takes to become proficient. You can’t effectively pursue 14 passions simultaneously if you want to develop real skill. Developing expertise demands focus.

There’s an opportunity cost to each decision. If you spend more time writing, that’s less time for photography. If you’re going to improv class, that’s time you can’t spend running.  You only have so much time, so use it wisely–because you can only become expert at the things you actually practice.

There are things you can do to get the most out of your time. If you watch less tv, limit time on facebook, and don’t lose your bills, you’ll have more time to devote to more important pursuits.

What are you pursuing? Choose carefully, and go for it.

That’s the only way to become accomplished.

What do you want to be great at?

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  1. Erica says:

    I would debate your premise here. It is Caroline Bingley not Austen, who asserts that a woman must be highly skilled at something like music or art. Since she, not Elizabeth or one of the more admirable characters makes the point, we are supposed to be highly suspect of it. And Darcy’s response to her is ironic. Elizabeth Bennet, who is, of course, the heroine, isn’t particularly skilled at anything formal. She asserts repeatedly (without shame or regret) that she ISN’T accomplished. She is funny and has a strong personality and is interesting, and she can hold her own in verbal sparring matches, which is why Darcy loves her (while the women who have spent all their time learning formal skills lack personality. Darcy’s sister complicates this a bit, though even then Austen doesn’t give her much of a voice in the novel). I agree that we need to focus in our own lives and work in order to accomplish something worthwhile, but I think Austen’s point in this context is just the opposite of what you are claiming here. Even if we never achieve that, we can still be valuable and interesting and worthwhile.

    • Anne says:

      Yes, you’re certainly right that Jane Austen would argue with Caroline Bingley’s description of the “accomplished woman.” Caroline’s describing a lady who has all the manners of polite society, and Austen makes clear that this kind of “accomplished” is not worth seeking–far better to be an Elizabeth!

  2. Angie says:

    Writing! Even though Creative Writing was my favorite subject in High School I decided to major in Nursing in college. I do love Nursing, which is a good thing since I’ve been doing it for 24 years, but I only picked up writing again a few years ago. I started a blog, did a “fictional” post just for fun, and got a great response. A friend invited me to a meeting of a local group of professional writers, and I’ve never looked back. No, I’m not published yet (other than a self-pubbed e-book cookbook), but I’m taking online classes, going to meetings, reading books about the craft of writing and writing every day. Someday I want to attend a conference as a publisher author. THEN I’ll know I’m an “Accomplished Woman”!

    • Anne says:

      As someone who loves to write but took years off from focused writing (not counting legal briefs!) this is so encouraging! I would love to hear more about your work (maybe over real coffee in 3D!)

  3. Glad you brought up the 10,000 hrs. thing. That was my favorite part of Gladwell’s book. Suddenly “greatness” is attainable. We’ve been told what we need to do to get there. Even Mozart got his 10,000 hrs. in before he developed a style unique to himself.

    For me, this realization means that I can’t start working on my goal SOMEDAY. Even with five kids in tow, I have to incorporate my dream into my life NOW.

    Aristotle said,”We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

    I am reading through the classics, using The Well-Educated Mind as my guide. I’m also honing my writing skills: I hope to convince others that diving into the classics is a worthy and enjoyable pursuit.

    Great post Anne. Thank you.

  4. Maddie says:

    My return from Blissdom was the action I needed to narrow my person focus. It had been on my mind and was part of my reason for going and during the sessions I gained clairty of what it is that I wanted to be doing.

    Specific how I wanted to be able to share my talents with the world. I loved my D.A. blog but lets face it another crafting blog is not what the world really needed when my ability to talk frankly and openly about other topics puts me in the position to help others more in the field of marriage and intimacy ( which is close to my heart) than all the wild knowledge I have about ModPodge!

    Three cheers for Narrowing! I can’t wait to see where you go with it!

    • Anne says:

      Maddie, your comment reminds me of something Tsh said at Blissdom–aim for that place where your skills and passions collide. It’s good advice, and I’m thrilled to see you doing it!

  5. Rebecca says:

    I think there’s a corollary to this: something we have trained to do with excellence brings a unique pleasure and confidence that is difficult to replicate. Whether it’s writing, or piano, or cooking, or sewing, when we reach the level that we are limited only by our creativity, and no longer by our skills, that accomplishment brings an inordinate amount of sheer joy to our lives.

  6. Anne says:

    Rebecca, you are so right, and as someone who’s natural tendency is to go a mile wide and an inch deep I appreciate this reminder!

    This reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s writings about Flow–that state of being completely in the groove of our work. It’s a good place to be.

  7. Grace says:

    Wow! That actually was somewhat of an encouragement to me. Sometimes I feel like I am not improving quickly enough, but 10 years or 10,000 hours is a long time! Now the important this is being consistent.

  8. Stacy says:

    My daughter often has told me she’s “not good” at something I may do (drawing, sewing, cooking, etc.), and I tell her the only reason I can do these things is because I have practiced. It is only through repeated attempts that you “get good” at something.

    Right now I really enjoy sewing. I have been doing it for 25 years, and at this point I can draft my own patterns and do my own designs. People ask me how I have the time to make most of my kids’ wardrobes and sew for myself, while working full-time. It simply doesn’t take me as long as most people, because I have already made so many learning errors (and still do at times!). I have learned how to assemble garments and don’t need to look at directions. It is through repeated practice that you become accomplished. At this point I am probably getting close to those 10,000 hours!

  9. Jodi B says:

    There are so many things I would like to be good at, but as a mother of 4 my time is precious. So for now, I am focusing on just one thing. I bet you can guess what it is. 🙂

  10. Tim says:

    Anne, who knew that when Jane Austen created Lacy Catherine de Bourgh she’d be foreshadowing a 21st c. journalist’s take on expertise and accomplishment: “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” What a hoot!


    P.S. Nice to read a fellow JD who also appreciates JA.

  11. Missy Rose says:

    I love this. I was immediately reminded of when Elizabeth says that she’s not good at playing the piano forte because she didn’t take the time to practice. Of course we can’t take 10,000 hours to become accomplished at everything around us, but if we prioritize we can find something that combines our time, our talent, and our passion. Elizabeth read a lot, something she enjoyed. It was also something that made her accomplished (in Darcy’s opinion) because it developed her mind, which I think any task worth spending 10,000 hours on would do. There’s a lot to think about in this post. 🙂

  12. I agree that becoming accomplished at something is a great goal. That is, after all, the great lesson of Austen’s Emma. Emma can’t get past her jealousy for Jane Fairfax because Jane has taken the time to become truly exceptional at something.

    But there is also a value to being an amateur–someone who does something just because she loves it, even if she’s bad at it. Just as there is a sense of pride in being able to play the piano well, there is also a sense of pride in being able to bake a simple loaf of bread for the first time or make your own cleaning products. Accomplishment is about breadth of skill as well as depth.

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  14. Julie says:

    You had me at “Jane Austen”! Found you through moneysavingmom and already signed up for your emails. We’re on the same page and I will add you to my elite list of “me time” sites for when the kids are otherwise engaged, but not for long enough for me to delve into my “practice”. This is a great post. My husband and I discuss Outliers often. It should be mandatory reading for parents!

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