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Malcolm Gladwell is well-known for his ability to sift through the chaff of daily life and subtleties of economics to find the grains of wisdom lying hidden inside. Amongst the many subjects he’s written about is the notion of developing an expertise in something through hard work and discipline – 10,000 hours of practice to refine one’s skills.
The idea of 10,000 hours came from Anders Ericcson, a Swedish scholar who, with others, studied and wrote about the psychology of learning and motivation (Toward A General Theory of Expertise, 1991, and The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games, 1996).
In his best-selling book The Outliers: The Story of Success, (Little, Brown & Co., 2008) Gladwell discusses such tenacity at length, through the examples of Mozart, Bill Gates and the Beatles, among others. Each of these high-achievers found great success not just through genius but also through many hours spent practising and perfecting their expertise, whether it be composing, computer programming or playing as a group.
In essence, some people have great talent, many stand out from the crowd and can become exceptional at what they do, but not everyone makes the breakthrough to superstardom. Studies performed on pianists and violinists in the 1990’s in Berlin demonstrated that the difference-maker was the amount of hours spent practising. How many hours? The amount generally accepted by researchers is 10,000 hours (see Daniel Levitan). And not just hard work, but “much, much harder”.
When one delves into Gladwell’s book one sees that there is actually more to it – the aspiring individual must have a nourishing home and/or academic environment and the importance of timing – having the good fortune of ‘catching the wave’ at the exact right time simply by being of a certain age. For example, Gates, Allen and Ballmer (not to forget Jobs and Schmidt) were born in the mid 1950’s, primed to take up the home computer revolution. In sum, it’s a formula – talent + opportunity + dedication = success.
Now, not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. Some call it overly simplistic; some say the data is anecdotal, used selectively (cherry-picked) and overstates the case; some claim this evidence is drawn from too small a group. One later study by Case Western University actually found that “deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions, concluding that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued”. (Brooke McNamara and others, 2014)
In sum, practice only explains a part of the equation. I don’t think Gladwell would have contested that hypothesis. Success stems from a whole host of factors, many of which he discusses in the book.
Why do I write about this? While I’d claim to have a modicum of writing talent, I recognize I am neither a Hemingway nor a Tolstoy, and probably never will be. However, if one accepts this premise, I do have the discipline and willingness to keep at it, (rewriting, editing and polishing the first versions until it meets my own standard of excellence) as well as the opportunity and patience required (without having to worry about day-to-day expenses) to spend years to get it out the door and into the hands of the reading public.
How long is 10,000 hours? It’s a long time, the equivalent of 600,000 minutes, 416 days, or 59.5 weeks, or 13.69 months or 1.14 years. It took me six years to write the first draft of the 7-book series (2006 – 2012) and then another eight years to review and perfect it. I didn’t write every day, but when I did, I aimed for what usually amounted to a chapter/day.
By the time I’d started my review in 2012, I realized I’d learned a great deal about writing both from the doing and from the guidance of those more expert than me in the craft. And the more I wrote, the more I knew what was right and wrong and what worked or did not. The final product, for better or worse, is a product of those 10,000 hours spent practising and perfecting.