Today I want to share the 10,000-hour rule that I hope will be as motivating for you as it has been for me. Malcolm Gladwell set forth the theory in his book Outliers 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. That joy can propel us through the mucky process toward something great. This post is also a reminder that, “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly at first.” (Quote by G.K. Chesterton). I find these ideas thrilling.
A 10,000-hour commitment
In essence the science states that It takes a really long time to get good at something hard. 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 fifteen years ago it changed the way I think about my writing and it had a profound effect on choices I made along the way. More on that in a minute.
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.”
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.”
Talent vs. practice
When researchers look at the so-called gifted, talent plays a much smaller role than 10,000-hours of 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 10,000-hour formula to become an “Outlier”:
Success = Talent + 10,000 hours + lucky breaks
Passion is required to keep going for 10,000 hours
It may go without saying that for anybody to follow the 10-hour rule 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, I feel downright lucky that people pay me a living to write. I’d 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 with the 10,000-hour rule
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 (someone who has definitely proved the 10,000-hour rule) 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 it 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.”
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.
How the 10,000-hour rule changed the trajectory of my life
The short version is that I realized I would never be able to achieve 10,000 hours in my area of passion (writing true stories) if every day was over-filled with making a living doing something else. I chewed on that for a long time, but bit-by-bit I intentionally put the pieces in place to turn my craft into my full-time job. This gave me the physical time each day to put in my hours faster.
The ideas in Outliers still encourage me to keep after my writing week after week. I am not world-class, but I can improve, and am deeply committed to many more years of plodding and learning.
A 10,000-hour failure can mean ultimate success
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.”
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.” 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. They riff covers of great songs or mimic better artists until they gain enough confidence to combine influences into something new.
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, Taking a Break from the 10,000-hour Rule
Related to doing a thing badly, there is also a 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 hard so your creativity can have fun. She says,
“I was willing to work hard, in other words, so that Creativity could play lightly.”
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. If we’re aiming for that 10,000-hour target, we need to rejuvenate our energy too!
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.”
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.
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.” For Pressfield, the process of discovery is what propels a writer forward. 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 also 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 (and 10,000-hour attitude and work ethic) to get it out of the ground.
Discovering what is already there
In summary, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King and Steven Pressfield 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 me up at 3 am, an uncanny experience indeed. In those instances, it feels like the story itself wants to be told.
“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.
Hard labor vs. gifts from the muse
To clarify, two states exist simultaneously: inspiration shows up like a gift from the creative Universe, followed by painstaking labor to chisel and 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. 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).
Letting go of perfectionism
Even though an idea might be inspired, we still have to let go of any notion 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, she notes the following:
“[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
In Big Magic Gilbert reminds me that at some point, I just have to call a piece done. Finish the darn thing so we can go onto making more beautifully imperfect art. She describes the process of working diligently and then letting go and calling an imperfect work done. This is what she means when she says:
“You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.”
Paradox – striving for an ideal someday while letting go of perfection today
It is a true paradox that anyone wholly devoted to a craft will aim for 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. In the middle of doing the work, however, we have to let go of perfection and be okay with a messy process and ultimately to accept a “good enough” product.
That is what it takes – we must be willing to accept less-than-ideal results, while eyeing the highest standards as a goal. With every project, I see so many flaws and ways I want to do better the next time. It’s good I get another practice session tomorrow.
Elizabeth Gilbert is a great model here too, in that she took 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, 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.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
That seems like a great place to pause today.
May you play lightly and pleasure in the process, motivated by your 10,000-hour journey. May your muse visit often and your work be blessed.
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her latest book Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story.
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