My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Writing for Ten Thousand Hours

Malcolm Gladwell has gotten a lot of criticism about his book The Outliers, but one idea that has gone positively viral and straight into our cultural consciousness is his idea of ten thousand hours.  The basic idea is that to be expert at anything, we first have to spend ten thousand hours doing it.

While I actually think some of the other theses of Gladwell's book--that our success is based on a lot of factors that have nothing to do with us, like cultural values, national laws, a familial legacy, and access to the kind of intense, demanding feedback that makes each one of those ten thousand hours a huge learning experience--have more relevance to his overall point about outliers, those ideas have a hard time finding fecund soil in our society.  People want to believe they are the only important factor in their success.  They farm out the blame for their failure to every manner of external factor, from but want to be the sole engineers of how awesome they are when anything goes right.

To be honest, we'd all do a lot better in life if we did exactly the opposite--took responsibilities for our failings and failures, and acknowledged everything around us (besides our sheer unadulterated awesomeness) that contributed to our successes.  Writers in particular are going to find a whole lot of "no one gives a shit" when they start tallying up their excuses for failure.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that no one can ever be proud of how hard they've worked, but most writers who make it have a list as long as their arms of things outside of themselves they need to thank--from supportive spouses to trust funds to a friend who was getting rid of their old laptop right when they needed one.  Keeping all those people in one's thoughts if you achieve something significant is just good humility.

Writers are already creatures of untamed ego.  If they don't learn to cultivate humility, they start being central in space opera movie scenes where old men named Ben (who live out beyond the dune sea) with white beards and burlap robes slowly look towards the "small moon" where that short-ranged fighter is headed and say: "That's not a moon.  It's a writers ego."

This is just before spaghetification occurs to the whole lot of them.  (Hopefully my astronomy peeps aren't the only ones who get this awesome joke about the size of a writer's ego.)

Plus if you try to take all the credit for your success and claim you just wanted it enough and worked hard enough, enraged wannabes who are working just as hard as you but without all the benefits are likely to attack you, fury glinting in their wild eyes as they froth at the mouth and beat you into a bloodied pulp with their moleskin journals.

But let's talk about the 10,000 hours, since that is the idea that's become a viral meme, and an idea that really becomes useful when thinking about writing.

Gladwell is usually misquoted as saying that it requires ten thousand hours to be merely "great" at something, but he actually says it takes that long for extraordinary people to become paragons.  A "phenom," which is the actual word he uses, is usually a young person who is outstanding.  Gladwell was talking about the best of the best.  The people in a field who even make the other experts in the field look like amateurs.  Gladwell would say that Shakespeare and Faulkner took 10,000 hours to hit their stride.  What Gladwell wasn't offering is a recipe for average people to reach success.  Us normal people with our normal skill sets aren't going to work for 10,000 hours and be phenoms.  We just aren't outliery enough.

But you know what?  Fuck Gladwell.  Fuck him right in the ear.

Ten thousand hours has entered our cultural consciousness because it turns out that it IS a pretty good amount of time for someone to be really, really good at something.  Also, it's a nice, round number.  We love nice, round numbers.  But mostly it just seems to be on to something.  When someone's written that much, you can just tell.  You can detect a quality in their writing that someone without that practice lacks.  They can transform ideas into words with greater ease.

Let me break 10,000 hours down for you because it's probably longer than you think.  At 2 hours a day, every single day--including weekends and holidays you would finish your ten thousand hours at just over thirteen and a half years.  This is probably why, when it comes to expository writing, a graduate of college is generally considered to have good written communication skills.  After sixteen years of school, they have probably just reached their 10,000 hours.

Sixteen years of school.

Unfortunately, while there is some overlap between expository writing and creative writing, almost any writer who can get an A on a paper by handing in a first draft knows all too well that they are different skill sets.  I have a lot of friends who are very skilled writers at tech or freelance writing who can attest to the fact that creative writing is a whole different beast.

For most subjects we didn't start in the first grade, 10,000 is usually just about being wrapped up at the conclusion of a PhD program.  Ten thousand hours isn't fucking around.

Here's another way to think of this.  Most people are pretty good at their jobs.  This is because if they have a regular job, they're probably doing it somewhere around eight hours a day.  Let's assume our person is actually working eight hours a day, five days a week and not calling in "sick" several times a year or seriously slacking off after lunch.  They'll hit their 10,000 hours at a little under five years.  And, in fact, when I was in management, over and over I read the figure that with complex skill set jobs (like management) it would take about five years for someone to really get the hang of what they were doing and be good material for promotions.   That means that even if you do something like it's a 40 hour a week job, you're still looking at 5 years.

Around three hours a day, with an occasional break, you'll reach your ten thousand hours in about ten years.  Ten years.  Ten YEARS!  Tenyears.  TEN YEARS! (Okay play that clip below if you're not getting this.  Not everyone insta-groks John Cusack movie references as well as me.)

If you can only give the art (to which poetic dedication is pronounced regularly) a single hour a day....you will achieve your 10,000 hours in a little over twenty-seven years.

Two or three hours a day is where most people who are dedicated to some kind of art tend to land.  People who want to be great musicians practice on their instrument for two or three hours a day long before they join their city's philharmonic.  Visual artists often sketch and work constantly for years before they begin to be recognized as having talent and skill.  Ten years of hard work and resiliency for hours each day before the product will really reach a level that has apparent, recognizable ability.  And if ten years seems like a long time, let me remind you that three hours a day isn't chump change either.  Other than sleep and work, most Americans only spend that much time watching TV (or with the new generation this is often taken up by video games, net surfing, and other computer activities).  Most would-be writers can't even begin to conceive of writing for two or three hours every day, and many will catalog quite vociferously their excuses for not doing so.  Some even balk at writing thirty minutes a day.  Thirty minutes a day would get you to your ten thousand hours in 54 years.  At that point you'd probably break your hip when you cry out "Woo Hoo!"  (Unless you started your regimen at like four years old or something.)

When we place the idea of being a good writer into the context of ten thousand hours we can actually begin to codify what we mean when we say that it really takes a lot of work.  That's the reason I like this idea so much and come back to it so often.  It may not be a recipe, but it merits out more often than it doesn't  (that is to say, almost every single time--and every time I've ever checked...ever)  and it's hard to do any art for 10,000 hours and not be much, much better at it.

Ten thousand hours isn't about publication and it certainly isn't about success.  Other factors play large roles in either of those.  I know a lot of writers who are watching 10k hours fading away in their rear view mirror who are still struggling to get their first short story picked up by a magazine.  But something they all have in common is that they are good writers.  Their writing is on another level, and I can always instantly tell when I am reading the writing of one of my classmates or someone in a writing group who has been at it for years.  (I have never been wrong.)  Ten thousand hours is also not a switch where one simply crosses the threshold and their writing transforms.  But despite how imperfect and misquoted and unreliable and non dichotomous the whole idea of 10,000 hours can be, it is uncanny how well it can be a predictor for quality.

But then again...if you think about how much practice that is and how much dedication it represents...maybe it isn't that uncanny at all.


  1. Ohhhhhh. You made me get up off the couch, where I am supposed to be working, and go and get my copy of Outliers, just so I can agree with you. By disagreeing with you.

    I couldn't find the word 'phenom' in the 10,000 hour chapter. That doesn't mean it's not there, but it does make pretty clear that, in the original studies he's quoting, people who put in the time did well. 10,000 hours may be a minimum, but it's a pretty good minimum. The trick of the chapter, though - what he's really saying by the end - is that one's ability to put in those 10,000 hours is not necessarily within one's control. And that what one gets out the other side...well, it turns out that being an expert is not the same thing as being a success. In addition to 10,000 hours, you also have to have good timing, and that's just as tricky if not more so.

    1. Yeah, the point I was getting at early on was how his 10k fits into grander ideas, and that he never intended it to be a recipe for success. What everyone heard and took to the bank was a much different message--one I like a little better anyway because it's not just about the freakishly awesome uberpeeps, but is a pretty good baseline for a mere mortal being able to be "really good" at something.

      I read Outliers a couple of years ago, but I was at a friend's so I was speed reading it. I also didn't much care for it, so I never bothered to buy it myself. I had to fill in my memory by looking it up and the sites talk about "phenom" a lot. Many of the sites I found were also quick to point out how often "Ten Thousand Hours" is misrepresented.

      The way I hear it used is more like "Put in your ten thousand hours if you want to be good at something! Ra. Ra. Ra." Then people get their undergarments twisted because that's not REALLY what Gladwell's point was. Frankly, I prefer the misconception because it has something everyone can take to the bank. If you care about doing something well, be ready to do it for hours a day...for YEARS...before you're extraordinary enough at it to stand out. We all kind of get that intellectually, but putting a number on it really nails home the idea of how much work that really is.

      I swear to god Kest, you're going to give me a complex or something. :-p I think you've made a point of telling me the last three or four times I've seen you that you don't read W.A.W., but then you show up to disagree with me. I'm starting to imagine you sitting around your house, and then you pause...sniff the air...and say "Chris is WRONG!" as you dive for your computer.

  2. "I have a lot of friends who are very skilled writers at tech or freelance writing who can attest to the fact that creative writing is a whole different beast."

    True dat. This latest round of job hunting is showing me how much I really do know my shit about tech writing... more than I gave myself credit for a month ago. (And you know what it says at the top of my resume? '13 years of experience'.) But I would not even try to write a novel, let alone get one published-- and even a short story would be Extremely Freaking Unlikely. Like, if I succeeded, I might have ONE in me that happened to be good enough. I'm not saying that one kind of writer can't also be the other kind... but it would take hard work in BOTH areas, with less overlap than most writers probably think.

    1. I'm often surprised at how often I run into the attitude that writing is writing is writing. Though now that I think about it, it often seems like it's a sort of "one way" directional claim that creative writing requires no particular skills. I don't see the same people claiming that their job could easily be picked up by a fiction writer--just the other way around.

      I used to really love the saying: "Acting is really easy, until you do it." Honestly, I think that saying could almost apply to anything besides the people in Cirque De Soleil or astronauts (or maybe selling hot dogs at the other end). It's just probably not as easy as it looks.

    2. Then again, that is strictly my experience I'm going off of. There could be lots of fiction writers out there that YOU'VE run into who are tilt their nose to the sky and claim that tech writing can't be that tough.

  3. The thing that bothers me so much about the 10,000 hour thing is that it implies mastery is simply a matter of putting in the time, and that's BS to me. As you said, to reach 10,000 hours, it takes 2 to 3 hours a day in 10 years to achieve mastery in any endeavor. So, this gets interpreted as meaning that, if I put in 2 to 3 hours a day practicing golf, I could become as good as Tiger Woods in 10 years regardless of any talent or lack of talent I had at the beginning. It fits with the American ideal that plain old hard work will get you where you want to go and ignores the fact that talent plays a HUGE part in a person's ability and willingness to put in the 2 to 3 hours (or more) each day, every day, for 10 years. Sure, I could become a better golf player if I put in that much time, but the problem is that I'm not going to do it. I'm going to get bored, I'm going to find other, more rewarding things to do because that's how the human brain is wired - we seek reward. We do more of what rewards us because it feels good. For me, no matter how badly the writing is going, no matter how uncomfortable it is, no matter how maddening it is to spend weeks going over the same scene again and again to find the perfect detail, the perfect gesture, the perfect image, I will do it because the process rewards me over and over again every time I sit down to write. It becomes a positive feedback loop. I will work my butt off to get better at it, and read and practice and do everything I can to become the best writer I can. But the talent came first. The desire to tell stories came first.

    Golf? I've tried. I went through a phase where I wanted to play the game. I worked with an instructor. But, bottom line, the talent isn't there. I had a brief, one-week stretch, after a couple of years of inconsistent practice, where every ball I hit just flew and it felt great. Awesome even. But that wasn't enough to keep me coming back to the driving range 2 to 3 hours every day for another couple of years. And then I fell out of the zone and never got it back again and my golf clubs gathered dust in the corner of the garage. End of story.

    It's not only practice that matters in this equation. Talent coupled with practice matters a lot more, in my opinion. The talent will get you started, will give you the early rewards that make it possible to dedicate 2 to 3 hours (or more) a day to the practice, but you're not going to keep going if the talent wasn't there to begin with.


    1. Yeah, nothing so formulaic is going to be a prescription for everyone. Even Gladwell in the book talks about all the factors that lead those 10k hours to be "useful" including factors we rarely acknowledge like privilege or social standing. The part that turned into a viral meme did so, I think, because it gives people who DO love something and DO get pleasure from it a rough idea of just how much work there is to answer the question of "When do I get good?"

      I also think it's far, far, far, FAR more likely someone is "talented" (in as much as that even means) but hasn't put in the work than vice versa. Like you and your golf story, I think most people who discover they are facing limited returns even after hundreds or thousands of hours are likely to filter themselves out through self selection. I've met a staggering number of ambitious writer with some degree of talent, a love of books and a real desire to write who haven't actually done a whole heck of a lot of writing. I can't say that I've actually ever met anyone who wrote constantly, hours a day for years, who didn't have an admirable level of skill at it. (Though I have met a few who adjusted the KIND of writing they did--discovering they weren't quite creative enough for fiction, but that they loved reviewing restaruants [or something]).