Ever have a week when you’re in the zone? When the wind is at your back and it feels like there is no chain on the bike? This was not one of those weeks for me. So this post is a reminder that, “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” (Quote by G.K. Chesterton). It is also a reminder of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, namely that in the realm of hard tasks, there are no naturals. Natural talent, while important, is over-rated because research says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world class. But if you are passionate enough, the process will feel like pleasure, and your craft will be worth doing badly at first. This article is a pep talk. To myself. Here’s the mucky laundry part: I worked my buns off this week and put in a ton of hours, but I’m way behind on where I want to be. The writing I did crank out was far from glorious and in in the middle of this frustration I came across a video of me being interviewed a while back. I had not seen it before and I wanted to slip under my chair while watching. I was nervous, flat and, ugh – boring. Also chubby. I felt disheartened. Later that evening while I was scrubbing away in the kitchen (anybody else clean when you’re stewing?) the quote about doing a thing badly came to mind. That idea reassured me.
A 10,000-hour commitment
The science is this: It takes a really long time to get good at something. It takes 10,000 hours of time including a high dose of intense practice to master complex tasks. Malcom Gladwell’s wonderful book Outliers discusses this point in detail. When I read that book maybe ten years ago it changed the way I think about my writing. (Gosh, has it been that long? I could be an expert by now! What I am decidedly an expert at, is attending meetings. I’ve logged my 10,000 hours for sure.) Outliers encourages me to keep after my writing day after day. I’m not even close to being world-class, but I can improve, and am deeply committed to many more years of plodding and learning. Now, are you ready to take a break and watch a pep talk? Check out this video slide overview I made, bringing together ideas from my favorite authors about the interplay of creativity, talent and practice.
For a great discussion of the science behind the 10,000-hour rule here is an excerpt from Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker: “Forty years 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…
“…Researchers, time and again, reached the same conclusion: it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks.”
Gladwell began looking for examples of world-class talent in many fields to substantiate the 10,000-hour-rule. He has been misquoted as saying that talent has no role, but he clears that up in The New Yorker article above. Regarding aptitude he provides this example about innate talent:
“As it happens, I have been a runner and a serious track-and-field fan my entire life, and I have never seen a boy who was slow become fast…For that matter, I’ve never met someone who thinks a boy who was slow can become fast.” (Malcolm Gladwell)
It’s a fair point, right? One of Gladwell’s famous Outlier examples is The Beatles. Although they certainly started with born talent, there is a reason they did not give us The White Album in their twenties. They had not yet put in the time. When Gladwell wrote about the “ten-thousand-hour rule,” he meant for that to be a combination of talent and hard work. This is Gladwell’s statement of his formula: “Achievement is talent plus preparation.” (Malcolm Gladwell) When researchers look at the so-called gifted, talent plays a much smaller role than practice. In other words, Gladwell says, “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.” (Malcolm Gladwell) There is also a dose of luck and circumstance to become a phenomenon.
So here is a more complete statement of the formula to become an “Outlier”:
Talent + 10,000 hours + Lucky Breaks
It may go without saying that for anybody to devote 10,000 hours of practice, it takes a high level of intrinsic passion. Pushy parents can never substitute for a spark that catches within a child. Tiger Woods started young, but he loved the game of golf. Nobody would put himself through the grueling effort required to repeat hard tasks again and again without really loving the process. If a young person burns out, it’s game over.
On the flip side, anybody who loves the game or the art, will find innate joy in doing the work. Again, in thinking about my own vocation, it feels like a profound privilege to write people’s stories and I feel downright lucky that people pay me a living to do it. I like to think that this passion shows in the end product. It is not drudgery or obligation that gets me out of bed in the morning, but rather excitement to hear about people’s fascinating lives, soak in their wisdom, then put words to their experiences.
Becoming a good writer:
Around the same time I read Outliers, one of my writing group members recommended I read Stephen King’s fab book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft. The person who recommended it is a university creative writing professors, and she uses this book with her freshman students. Since I’m no horror fan, I was a bit skeptical but I read it on her word and it became one of my personal textbooks. I re-read it every couple years now. In this funny, smart and personal book King explores the creative process. He also gives pithy tips on writing like, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” It is his discussion on the interplay of talent and discipline that I wish to quote here. On Writing says this:
“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” (Stephen King)
To put this in personal terms, I found this idea comforting because although I’m not likely to become one of the greats, I am probably competent, and I would be thrilled to be called good someday. This is another way of stating that there is plenty of hope for anyone who starts with a spark of talent and puts in the time, i.e., 10,000- hours Gladwell-style.
10,000 ways something won’t work – Iterating
Thomas Edison’s famous quote comes to mind here too. I certainly can’t be the first person to notice that he picked the number 10,000 too, right? When pressed to report results or to explain his progress or justify so-called failures, he said this:
“Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.” (Thomas Edison)
Talking about failure has become something of a cottage industry, with the mantra “fail fast/fail often” has become ubiquitouis to the point of cliché in Silicon Valley, or a cousin concept “failing by design.” I believe there’s something to it, though. One of the hallmarks of Built to Last companies, was that they all “try a lot of stuff and keep what works.” (Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras). Many of the best artists and inventors also iterate on other people’s work. Why wouldn’t they stand on the shoulders of prior learning? They riff covers of great songs or mimic masters until gaining enough confidence to combine influences. In doing so, they make something entirely new or send offshoots in an unexpected direction. Genius is often seen in the ability to collect ideas, ask questions, and bring them together in fresh insights. Malcom Gladwell uses the example of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” which is the one most people are familiar with. Yet as Gladwell explains, it’s not a cover of the original “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen, but a cover of John Cale covering Cohen’s version. (Here’s a great article about artists iterating).
Creativity and Big Magic
On a related note, there is also beautiful case for being an amateur in anything. Hobbies bring joy, and we all need some pure play, just for the fun of it. Nobody says we have to become world class. Go ahead and enter that pie in the county fair. Sign up for a fun run. Decorate that ox. The ox reference is an example of whimsy from my current favorite book on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert entitled “Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear.” She advocates working so hard so your creativity can have fun. She says,
“I was willing to work hard, in other words, so that Creativity could play lightly.” (Elizabeth Gilbert)
Gilbert mentions the fun of fiddling with the dials in an interactive cycle of learning a craft. Let process go a little wild. In my world, splashing in puddles, working in the garden, making art, and making love are gorgeously and luxuriously messy.
In Defense of the Amateur
G.K. Chesterton who quoted, “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly” would have liked both the ox and county fair examples. Not only did he see doing something badly as a step on the road to greatness, he was a fierce advocate of the amateur and a defender of hobbies. If you have a minute, read this wonderful article on the Chesterton.org site entitled, “A thing worth doing.” In the article, he says:
“As for ‘the rearing of the young,’ which is the education of the very young, this is a job not for the specialist or the professional, but for the “generalist” and the amateur. In other words, the mother.” (G.K. Chesterton)
What a lovely shout-out to the value of parents as amateurs instead of relying on professionals to rear your children. Whew! Guess I’ll be alright.
So if Gladwellesque experts are at one end of a continuum, Liz Wiseman also comes to mind with her concept of Rookie Smarts. A Rookie is on the other end of the expert continuum. In a keynote address at RootsTech in February 2017, Wiseman asked the audience this question:
“Is it possible we are at our very best, when we know the very least?” (Liz Wiseman)
The book Rookie Smarts is an exploration of the idea that, “When we linger too long on a plateau a little part of us starts to die.”(Liz Wiseman) The ideas of “Outliers” and “Rookies” might seem like opposites but I disagree. Rather, they are complimentary because people become experts through hard practice. In other words, Rookies continually push themselves outside the comfort zone until they become masters. That is the nature of “hard” practice as opposed to rote repetition of tasks already mastered. People who keep doing the same thing day after day, who don’t push themselves, who don’t let themselves fail will never become great. Gladwell makes it clear that not all practice is equal. Wiseman describes being a rookie as powerful because, “The rookie position is off balance.” This position feels awkward and we don’t like it. So we act, and Wiseman equates our footsteps forward to being “…In fire-walker mode. Firewalkers are cautious, but they walk very fast. You have never heard of a fire stander.” What I love about the Rookie Smarts concept is that the learning process feels challenging and exhilarating. Challenge is the antidote to stagnation and boredom. When one thinks of “hard practice,” it might sound like drudgery but people in a rookie state feel alive. Wiseman says this:
“When we are in a rookie state, we ask questions because we are desperate. We pray. We say yes. We don’t know it’s hard.”
Don’t Write What you Know
Related to writing, there is old advice to “write what you know,” and it makes intuitive sense that we can write richer details with what we have experienced. But consider the opposite. Sticking just to what we know can rob our curiosity. For me, the words, “I don’t know,” and “I wonder…” compel me to go exploring. The minute I think I know, I stop feeling that tingly drive to go see what’s around the next bend, or to tinker with what might happen, or to keep reading to see how the story ends. Perhaps this is why many fiction writers urge students to avoid telling autobiographical tales under the guise of fiction.
This might seem odd of me to say since my genre is memoir and family history. I reconcile this with a couple thoughts. One is that I usually write about other people, so unearthing the storyline in someone’s real life is an exhilarating process for me, a process that feels like how many artists describe receiving stories or ideas for art in an other-worldly way. Art or stories show up wanting to collaborate with a human and it’s the human’s job to give it life. Elizabeth Gilbert and Stephen King (among many others) describe that when stories come to them, it is a discovery of what is already there, rather than invention of their own minds. I can relate. I’ve had true stories wake up me up at 3 am, a most uncanny experience.
To Edit is Divine
Okay, but all this talk of playing lightly and mystical muses is not to gloss over the real work of refining. Maybe a brilliant work of art began as a flash of inspiration, but it probably took painstaking effort to chip away the excess, returning again and again. Editing is right hard work and it requires me sitting with my backside in a chair for long stretches, working and reworking, pruning and rearranging until it’s as good as it’s going to get for now. Then I like to rest and come back later, trying to make it better still (and not ruin it). I might come back a few days later, maybe even months down the road to add new insights and delete phrasing that sounds pretentious to my ear when I re-read it fresh. I’m a critical editor of my own work and when I work on paper drafts, the poor things look as though I’ve scratched the blood right out, with red marks and arrows everywhere.
I want to clarify that I do mean both points here: the value of inspiration that shows up like a gift from the creative Universe followed by painstaking labor to chisel and then then polish the surface. In my own writing, it it feels like the best magic happens when the muse brings inspiration and the words flow easily. If I have to beat the initial words out like a tortured confession, then there’s probably something off. After that, though, my human hands have to apply real labor. Editing nearly always feels like a disciplined grind. If I skip the work of refining, I’ll have a sloppy final product.
Stephen King says, “To write is human, to edit is divine.” (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft).
Even though an idea might be inspired, we still have to let go of ideas that it will be perfect at first. It will probably be a “shitty” first draft, to quote memoir coach and author Anne Lamott. In Bird by Bird, noting that we have to crank out a “shitty” first draft before anything else can be done.
“[Perfection] will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Elizabeth Gilbert is a great model here too, in that she advocates playing lightly, yet also devoted her life to writing by taking a literal vow to the craft. That’s some serious business right there. She fully immerses herself in writing every day, gives her creativity room to breathe without worrying about monetary results, and works very hard on the editing process. Then, Gilbert calls it a day.
Leonardo da Vinci famously said:
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
In Big Magic Gilbert reminds me that at some point, I just have call a piece done. Finish the darn thing so we can all can go onto making more beautifully imperfect art. In that spirit, think I will end with this thought: :
“You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.” -Elizabeth Gilbert
May you play lightly and experience pleasure sufficient to finish your own 10,000-hour journey from amateur to master. May your muse visit often, and find you accepting enough of imperfection to begin the collaborative process together. Then may your human hands be blessed with enough stamina to refine your art into its magnificent potential.
By Rhonda Lauritzen, founder and an author at Evalogue.Life, where we tell personal and family stories that inspire. (Let us help you tell yours!) Rhonda lives to hear and tell about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an old Victorian in Ogden Utah and work together in Evalogue.Life, weaving family and business together. This post contains affiliate links which means if you buy a book I mentioned using one of these links, I make a commission. It helps us keep the lights on and we really appreciate it!
Questions Everyone Should Ask
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