Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Only 10,000 Hours?

I stayed up a little later than usual last night and caught Malcolm Gladwell on the Jimmy Kimmel show. (Perhaps a repeat, but as NBC used to put it, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you.)

He was on tour for his latest book, The Outliers. I haven't read it, but it sounds very interesting, like all his work, I daresay. I'm a huge fan. I obviously can't review a book without reading it, so this is only my reaction to the interview.

The subject is extraordinary individual accomplishment--genius, greatness, whatever you want to call it. Gladwell talked about interviewing people like Bill Gates, and looking at the biographies of certain accomplished musicians, athletes, and inventors. I generally liked his approach, as he outlined it: The point appears to be to contextualize individual accomplishment, to locate it in broader social, cultural, and political structures. (As well as certain idiosyncratic structures, i.e. the hockey player/birthday connection. Nothing to do with astrology.)

I'm sympathetic to Gladwell's approach. Tracing the roots of genius was a minor obsession of mine in graduate school: I spent a research seminar tracing the biographies of a particular intellectual circle at Moscow University in the 1830s. And my sense is that Gladwell, in that low-key manner that seems to be a Canadian trademark, finds it (politically) instructive to analyze that something. I tend to agree with this notion. Michelle Obama recently touched on this theme: She noted during her visit to the Department of Education that she was a product of its work. Me, too. I am a Head Start kid.

Anyway, Gladwell discussed the example of Bill Gates, who had access to a computer at a time when 99.9 percent of kids his age didn't. It just so happened that some parent had donated a computer to the school that Gates attended, and he noodled around with it. (Maybe that parent qualifies as a genius? This was in the early 1970s.) Gates was so smitten with the computer that he located a nearby mainframe that was also available for noodling--between the hours of 2 and 6 am. So he set his alarm and snuck out his bedroom window every night to go play with it. (His parents didn't know about this until he was an adult.)

And this was Gladwell's theme: Bill Gates is a bright guy, but he had to have a computer on which to learn. Genius isn't sui generis, a thing all on its own, it is a process: It is talent plus opportunity plus dedication, aka damned hard work.

And here is the part where my ears really perked up: Gladwell emphasized that talent only gets you so far, and that appears to be not very far at all. He said that when you look at extraordinarily accomplished people, what you will find is that they work very, very hard. He referred to something he called the "10,000-hour rule." (I don't know whether he coined the term.) Even the smartest, most talented people only get really good at something, Gladwell said, after they've done it an average of 4 hours a day for 10 years.

10,000 hours = 4 hours a day for 10 years.

I've been pondering this all day, as it pertains to my own work. One thing in particular I've been wondering is: What "counts" towards those 4 hours? If I want to be a writer, does editing someone else's work count? Critiquing someone else's work? Doing research for a project? Or does this mean 4 hours a day, fingertips on the keyboard, composing my own text? Do you think I could call Malcolm up and ask him this?

I would also like to ask him how narrowly the categories must be drawn. In other words, does all that writing of history papers I did in college and grad school count toward my mastering the art of fiction? If it counts a little, how much? Percentage-wise? Or should I have two separate accounts set up: Fiction and Non-fiction?

Just how close to 10,000 hours might I be?

In the end, my reaction to Gladwell's take on this is contradictory: On the one hand, he makes me groan and want to throw in the towel. Really, I think to myself, I have to work that hard? It'll never happen, I don't have that kind of time. There are too many things to do--earning a living, going to the grocery store, vacuuming the carpet. And there are sooo many inviting distractions.

On the other hand, I've all ready put in at least some of those hours. I might as well keep going, right? It would be a shame to waste what I've learned so far. The take-home message, if I choose to frame it this way, is that if I keep going, I've got as much chance as anyone else of getting there. Right?

And, if I die as actuarially scheduled, I have approximately 30 years left to live. That's plenty of time. Actually, according to Gladwell, that's enough time to become extraordinarily accomplished at THREE things. Hmmm....


  1. My own belief is that everyone is a genius at something, but if you don't use it, it takes a lot of work to get it back. 10,000 hours seem excessive. Just keep going, and forget the time.

  2. Whether Gladwell's right about the 10,000 hours, I certainly can't say. But it was inspiring to read about how hard work is a huge part of "getting there", especially Gate's early computer days. In this day and age of trying to speed through life to get where we want to be, it's nice to be reminded of the good old fashioned long road.
    Thanks for sharing! Good, thoughtful post.

  3. I hadn't seen the interview that you refer to; but I find this subject fascinating. It takes a passion for what you do to carry you through all the time it takes to develop your competence in it. Excellent blog post, really got me thinking.


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