How Did You Spend Your 10,000 Hours?
“A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the "10,000-Hour Rule", based on a study by Anders Ericsson. [Malcolm] Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles' musical talents and Gates' computer savvy as examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, “so by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.’” Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.”
Ron Silliman, in his short essay in Poets on Teaching: A sourcebook, mentions Gladwell:
“The second task, the extended reading, takes far longer. There are people—Bruce Andrews was one, Rae Armantrout another—who are writing in their mature style very early on, but in both cases you will find that were voracious readers also. This is where I think that Malcolm Gladwell’s gimmicky ten thousand hours of work to become good at any one thing, whether or not it’s writing, comes into play. You need to understand the range of poetry that you are seeking to become part of…”
Daniel T. Willingham, in Why Don’t Students Like School? has a different take on it, from the 10,000-Hour-Rule to the Ten-Year Rule:
“Another implication of the importance of practice is that we can’t be experts until we put in the hours. A number of researchers have endorsed what has become known as the “ten-year rule”: one can’t become an expert in any field in less than ten years, be it physics, chess, golf, or mathematics. This rule has been applied to fields as diverse as musical composition, mathematics, poetry, competitive swimming, and car sales. It has been argued that prodigies such as Mozart, who began composing as age five, are not exceptions to the ten-year rule, because their early output is usually imitative and is not recognized by their peers as exceptional. Even if we were to allow for a few prodigies every century, the ten-year rule holds up pretty well.”
These ten years are not empty, however. Willingham writes that those “in training often know as much (or nearly as much) as experts.” The ten years are needed to transition one from knowledge acquisition to knowledge synthesis.
Willingham then goes on to what I consider to be the second most important point in his book:
“And study and practice do not end once one achieves expert status. The work must continue if the status is to be maintained.”
That last bit goes well with his major point, which is, in a nutshell, that one’s intelligence is not fixed, it is to a large degree, changeable over time. The implications of that are huge. Willingham writes:
“Students who believe that intelligence can be improved with hard work get higher grades than students who believe that intelligence is an immutable trait.” I’ve seen this many times in the arts. It’s not the seemingly most talented student or the most intelligent student who in the end succeeds, it’s the student who keeps at it. It’s about the art one makes, not the promise of the student.
We see this sort of rise into mastery in the arts constantly. And then we also see the plateau and the waning of ability just about as constantly. One must continue to put in the practice. How often does one hear of a senior musician or an author say something along the lines of “I no longer listen to new music (or read in my genre).” And then how often does it seem paired with a lessening of their ability?
What composes those 10,000 hours leading to ten years is important. These things become the practiced moves, the long-term memory (that can also become part of one’s automatic memory) that one will draw on for years. But just like anything else, once something gets too solid in memory, especially automatic memory, what feels like the mastery of hitting one’s groove can overnight turn into the realization of being in a rut. The point on the other side of the ten year rule is the rule of continued practice, which is the continued practice of new things.
Yikes. That makes it sound like a lot of work. But, you know, if you’re doing something you like, continuing to be engaged shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. The test of students that professors meet them with: “Name ten living poets” should be met with a counter question by students to those teachers: “Name ten poets under the age of forty (who aren’t your former students).”