A thing worth doing is worth doing badly – The 10,000-hour rule
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 we are passionate enough, the process will feel like pleasure, and our craft will be worth doing badly at first. This article is a pep talk. To myself.
Now, 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, and intrigued me. It also reminded me how for several years, I’ve informally catalogued wisdom from some of the best minds on these related topics, but because it hit so personally and painfully this week, I opened a figurative box of gears I’ve been collecting. I found myself examining each part to see how it fit with the next and how they work together. Many of the ideas were duplicates, like the same part by different makers. Great thinkers arrived at the same conclusion from a different angle. Some thoughts were unique but work perfectly with others. And so, this is a long-form examination of ideas that light me up and inspire me to keep plugging away, practicing hard and earning my experience.
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. https://youtu.be/Ll0FVqjIaoQ
Science behind the 10,000-hour rule
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.” (Herbert Simon and William Chase)
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.
This also seems like a good place for a disclaimer. While perfectionism might hold us back from getting messy, anyone wholly devoted to a craft will put in the hard practice toward an unattainable ideal of perfection. No matter how good a piece of art turns out, the true artist will probably never be satisfied that it is good enough. What an interesting paradox. That we must be willing to accept less than ideal results, while eyeing the highest standards as a goal. Hitting the publish button on an imperfect article is an example. I see so many flaws and ways I want to do better the next time. Another practice session tomorrow.
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 professor, 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. It would thrill me to no end to have my work be called good someday. All of 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. I have faith there is even hope for me.
10,000 ways something won’t work -iterating
Thomas Edison’s famous quote comes to mind here too. I can’t be the first person to notice that Edison 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 is now something of a cottage industry, with the mantra “fail fast/fail often” has become ubiquitous 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 “try a lot of stuff and keep what works.” (Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras). The best artists and inventors iterate on other people’s work. And why wouldn’t they stand on the shoulders of prior masters? They riff covers of great songs or mimic better artists until they enough confidence to combine influences into something new. In doing so, they might send offshoots in an unexpected direction. Genius is 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 recognize. Yet, as Gladwell explains, it is 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
Related to doing a thing badly, 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 the 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
I bet G.K. Chesterton who quipped, “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. He was 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! Maybe I’ll be alright.
So if Gladwellesque experts who devote 10,000 hours of hard practice to the tasks are at one end of a continuum, then G.K. Chesterton and Liz Wiseman come to mind. Wiseman lit me up last spring when I heard her speak about the concept of Rookie Smarts. 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” who put in 10,000 hours and “Rookies” might seem like opposites but I disagree. Rather, they are complimentary rungs on a ladder. People start out with a passion as rookies and then become experts through hard practice. 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.” (Liz Wiseman)
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.” (Liz Wiseman)
Don’t write what you know
Related to writing, teachers might advise students 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, because the writer already knows how the story ends. There is no curiosity in discovering how the hero will wiggle out of a bind. Also, if not for curiosity, why would someone ever labor hard on a 10,000-hour commitment to a craft?
The process must be self-rewarding or we would quit
If you want to read someone else discuss the topic of curiosity better than I, check out this great article by Steven Pressfield entitled “Write what you don’t know.” I found that article independent of working on this piece and have to include a shout-out because it is basically a case of, “yeah, what he said.” This is another example of doing a thing badly at first. If I go exploring a curious idea where I am not an expert, it won’t be great in the beginning. Other people will have more to say than I, and will say it better. Still, if the idea really takes hold of me, and I am patient enough to hike to the end, perhaps I may receive a new insight or make my own unique contribution to the canon of thought. It might only be to bring disparate ideas together in a fresh mashup, but I like to think there’s a place for that too.
Now, before I go on, I acknowledge that it might seem odd of me to quote experts who discourage writers from being autobiographical. Is not my genre is memoir and family history? The stories I write already have endings. Or do they? I am reconciled to two 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. I don’t know the ending when I begin. The process 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 the story form.
I love Stephen King’s treatment of this topic in his book On Writing. King likens writing a story to an archaelogist uncovering an antiquity. He isn’t creating the statue (or making up the story), he is discovering what is already there. The Muse leads King to the story, and his job is to use his human hands to get it out of the ground. Steven Pressfield, is also a subscriber to Muse theory. He wrote the the wonderful The War of Art (which I listened to twice before adding to this article). When The Legend of Bagger Vance came to him, he had to deliver bad news to his agent that he was about to write a novel. Pressfield was a screenwriter, not a novelist, and first-time novels rarely see the light of day. To his wonderment, Bagger Vance was his most successful work yet, and others have since been “lucky.” Later, he hesitated to begin The War of Art, because he’s not a nonfiction writer. He delved in anyway because the idea had him. To my mind, it’s a masterpiece. I will be returning to that book again and again, just like another brilliant mind, Seth Godin, does.
Do the stories want to be told?
In summary, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King, Steven Pressfield (among many others) describe that when stories come to them, it is as though the story is a discovery of what is already there, rather than an invention of their own minds. I can relate. I’ve had true stories wake up me up at 3 am, an uncanny experience indeed. In those instances, it feels like the story itself wants to be told. In instances of true life stories, perhaps it is a person on the other side who wants to be remembered, I don’t know. What I do know is that when this happens, I don’t ask questions. I just shut up and get to work. To ask why or the mechanics of how would be to sully the divine. When the muse brings me a gift, I don’t want to break the magic. It is a privilege and I know better than to grill it. A second insight I’ve noticed is that in every case of writing a story about someone still living, the story is still unfolding. In other words, the ending really hasn’t been written yet because my character is still evolving. I have exhilarating experience of seeing my character grow in the present as I write about their past. For example, in the case of Norma Kier, I got to be a witness as she conquered her greatest fear at the age of 80. This happened while we were still in the throes of writing her book, Remember When and it wasn’t until she lived that moment that I knew where to type “The End.”
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 surely 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 I’ve done my best within the constraints of time. 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. Then I like to rest and come back later, trying to make it better still (and not ruin it). As I mentioned earlier, this article has been a work in process as I’ve added when new insights have presented themselves to me. To clarify, both states exist simultaneously. Inspiration shows up like a gift from the creative Universe, followed by painstaking labor to chisel and polish the surface.
Magic happens when the muse brings inspiration and words flow easily
In my own writing, it it feels like the best magic happens when the muse brings inspiration and the words flow easily not when I beat out words like a tortured confession. After that flash of inspiration, however, 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.” (Stephen King, 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 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 payoff, and works very hard on the editing process. Then, Gilbert calls it a day and publishes so she can go to work on something new. Which brings me to…
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” (Leonardo da Vinci)
In Big Magic Gilbert reminds me that at some point, I just have call a piece done. Finish the darn thing so we 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 pleasure in the process motivate your 10,000-hour journey. May your muse visit often your work be blessed.
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!