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Perfecting it in 10,000 hours or less

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Malcolm Gladwell and others have been saying, in all their book-promoting zeal, about greatness. Mostly I think about it because I work with some people who, still in that honeymoon phase of writing, expect that they should be writing in the company of their favorite authors, usually from the minute they put their first word on the page.

I’m guilty of this, too.  We fall in love with writing as young people; we immerse ourselves in the final drafts of writers who are often mid-to-late career, and we compare ourselves unfavorably (or worse, in my opinion, favorably) to them in a dance of almost willful naïvete. What the experts have found is what Gladwell calls the 10,000 hour rule. If you strip away all of the differences and look at what great achievers have in common (and if you hold aside the infuriating commonality that they’ve all been granted random good luck at one point or another), it’s that they’ve been practicing, with intention, their sport or their music or their art, for at least 10,000 hours. 

Writers have to work in a focused way for about four hours a day, five days a week, for at least 10 years to get there. Not that many people I know have made it there yet. The secret could be, and I’m stealing from my friend Tom McNeely here: Write lots of stories. Good ones, bad ones, wildly successful ones, horrifically awful ones. Write lots of poetry.  Then write even more.  Keep doing it, churning out drafts, revising them like crazy, hating them and then feeling a spark of momentary hope right before it fades again. Even if nothing’s ever truly “finished,” only abandoned (as the overused saying goes), each attempt is teaching us something we need to know about the craft. As the new prez says, “Our writing can’t be perfect, but it can always be perfected.” (All right, he said that about our union, but it applies to writing, too.)  And in the process of perfecting, we’ll wake up one day and realize we’ve hit that magic 10K.  (Then, I’m sure, it all becomes unbelievably easy…)

9 comments on “Perfecting it in 10,000 hours or less

  1. cheaplikeme
    February 19, 2009

    Fabulous! Now, can we count as “practice” the hours we spend thinking about how many hours we’ve already spent?

    I love the idea of having this benchmark. By then we will hopefully have learned to get out of our own way, which, I’m seeing, is my greatest obstacle.

  2. Jennie
    February 19, 2009

    I think it might take me a lot longer than 10,000 hours…it certainly has in classical music! Good thing I love coffee….

  3. gary
    February 19, 2009

    Only 10,000??? I must be a slow learner.
    I might add the advice to keep reading- short, long, good, not so good (even though they are “masters”, I’ve recently yelled out loud at stories in the NYer by Millhauser and Calvino). It doesn’t count towards the 10,000 however.

  4. andreadupree
    February 19, 2009

    Gary and Jennie — you guys have already hit 10K? (I know you’re in music, J, but still… amazing!) I’d love to think I have, but I’d be lucky to find 2,000 truly focused hours. I’m the slacker among us (as if that comes as a surprise).

    Susanna, if we start the tally marks now, imagine the hand cramp we’ll have when it’s over!

  5. Jennie
    February 20, 2009

    I have not hit 10 K — I just have a sneaking suspicion that it’s going to take me a lot more hours than that to hit my stride! I think my attempt to be humble somehow backfired here.

  6. Chris Ransick
    February 23, 2009

    I’d have to be better at math to add up my hours spent writing; maybe just 1,000 hours of math would do since I don’t need to master it for simpler calculations.

    Joking aside, Gladwell’s concept of 10,000 hours serves us a quantified commonality, nothing more, as you point out. I haven’t read his recent book but I would guess he isn’t saying, literally, that to pass through the numeric gate equals greatness. But the fundamental point is solid. The old concept of the guild charted progress from apprentice to journeyman to master over time, with the requisite hours of practice, repetition, discovery, and ideally, transcendence of materials. Chaucer wrote, “The lyf so short; the craft so long to lerne.” The “credit hours” required for academic degrees are based in this same concept.

    As you say, the point is just to put your head down and work and work and work. Somewhere, the dedicated writer eclipses the requisite hours (might be, er, 20,000 for some folks). If you are passionate about the subject, you’ll enjoy (most of? some of?) the journey.

    So what’s mastery? Last night, I attended a reception for Henry Lowenstein, a master set and costume designer in the Denver theater world. Now in his 80s, with failing eyesight, he has assembled his art/sketches for display (you can see them, and should see them, at the Denver Public Library). I don’t know how many hours this man has actually spent (easily past the gate of 10,000) but I do recognize mastery when I see it.

  7. Carleen
    March 1, 2009

    Glad he allows how much random good luck matters. I hope more for random good luck than I do the ability to practice X # of hours (tho I also believe in butt-to-chair). Persistence and luck is a pretty good formula for success.

  8. andreadupree
    March 2, 2009

    Yes, random good luck! But what was it Pasteur said? Chance favors the prepared mind?

    So, sadly, the 10,000 hours are meant to be the excruciating, focused kind. And it doesn’t guarantee anything, sadly. Just tends to be a commonality among those who do find some modicum of “greatness.”

    Thanks, Chris, for the Lowenstein bit. It’s a goodie.

  9. Pingback: Department of consolations « The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2009 by in The Write Idea.

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