(1) A few years ago I saw Malcolm Gladwell deliver a speech at the New Yorker Festival that is largely recapitulated in the second chapter of Outliers, called “The 10,000 Hour Rule.”
In it, Gladwell draws our attention to a data point converged upon by countless studies of experts in a variety of fields. He says, “In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” He goes on to quote neurologist Daniel Levitin:
In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. … It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.
Gladwell supports the rule using Mozart, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and the Beatles as his examples. Not to say that their genius and success is purely a result of 10,000 hours of practice – the book as a whole explains other facets – just that it was an essential component of their expertise.
(2a) 10,000 hours is a long time.
If as a child starting at age five you had piano lessons two times a week (an hour each) and also practiced an hour a day, you would clock nine hours a week. 468 hours a year. 4,680 hours a decade.
If you kept that up until age 26 you’d finally have served your time.
(2b) 10,000 hours can go by before you know it.
Maybe you got into video games at age 11. You played them every night after homework and dinner, let’s say from 7:30 to 11:00 p.m. on most nights, plus extra on the weekend. That’s more than 25 hours a week. 1,300 plus a year.
You’d be a master by the time you started college. Most kids are.
(2c) Time is relative.
“You know, Gina,” I said, breaking from my lead vocal, “I’ve been thinking about this 10,000 hour thing. Not everyone’s an expert at something. I mean, what do most people spend 10,000 hours doing by the time they’re 25? Watching teevee, I suppose.”
“More than likely,” she replied.
“But, think about me. I watched a lot of television, sure. Mostly, though, I read until I was old enough to write, and then I wrote and read. That’s what I spent my 10k on.”
(Perhaps she interjected, “Oh, I remember.”)
“And, you know, is it any surprise that I’m good at communications? I’m not an expert, but no wonder it’s my calling. I spent my whole life practicing for it.”
We sat and sang for a moment, contemplating that.
“What about you?”
Gina paused in her harmony. “Hmm, me?”
“Yeah. What did you spend 10,000 hours doing?”
“This. Listening to music. Singing harmony.”
“Really your whole life, right? Your mother singing, your father playing guitar…”
“Yeah, since I can remember.”
“Right. So, no matter how much I rehearse, you’ll always have the edge. It’ll always come easier to you, until I reach that threshold.”
We paused as the song wound down.
“What do you think Hezekiah spent 10,000 hours doing?”
We thought on that for a few moments, and then sang together to “Albert Hash.”
(4) We’re not all Mozart. I might not ever be Hezekiah Jones. But, we’ve all spent 10,000 hours doing something other than sleeping, and hopefully other than watching television. Maybe something incidental that we do out of necessity or habit. Driving? Social-networking? Cleaning? Taking care of children?
I’ve put in more than my share on communications – reading cereal boxes and trashy fantasy novels, writing stories at eight on my manual typewriter and almost nine years of blogs.
I got an early start on 10,000 hours of being Gina’s best friend, which I keep padding. I’m really good at that. More recently I’ve attained well-in-excess of 10,000 hours of being in love with Elise.
I hope eventually I’ll reach my 10,000th hour of serious focus on music. It’s a large piggy-bank of time to fill.
What about you? What have you spent your life mastering, intentionally or unintentionally?