Thursday, November 04, 2010

How Did You Spend Your 10,000 Hours?

10,000 hours is a long time on a skateboard.

From Wikipedia:

“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).”

It starts to look like a Coke commercial after awhile.


At 11/05/2010 6:29 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Poetry takes more like twenty years.

At 11/05/2010 6:50 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Does Rimbaud fall into the category of prodigy? I'm not sure, but I don't think he fulfilled this 10,000 hours rule, and he was a genius.

At 11/05/2010 7:22 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

This won't help I know, but I think it's possible you're both right.

At 11/05/2010 6:30 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


So, let’s do the math. Assuming a mere forty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year, 9 to 5, not even including holidays, 10,000 hours is less than five years. Most people take longer than that just to get their Bachelors these days . Ten years, even? I don’t think so.

The skills of production alluded to here (good poetry) require the better part of a lifetime to achieve.

Of course, this metric might explain the state of poetry today, since our ‘elders’ are still lost in the avant that has become so passé.


At 11/05/2010 7:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Now now. First, no one studies poetry (or most anything) for 40 hours a week.

But that's beside the point. It takes a long time to get good at something, we can agree, even if we disagree what "good" means.

Then there's this "avant" thing you toss a stone at. Is it passe? Are our "elders" lost in it? Neither of these feel very true to me. When I think of elders I think of people over 60, or at least 59. There aren't many "avants" in their number. The "avant" thing, if it is / was a thing, is something people between the ages of something like 30 - 50 are / were doing.

At 11/07/2010 4:24 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

You know of whom I speak, Mr. Gallaher. :-)

At 11/07/2010 5:36 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, I can guess you mean everyone who's considered an avant poet. But I get confused quickly, because I think it means the same thing as post-avant?

Anyway, I'm guessing you mean a lot of poets I admire, and some I don't. So we're on different sides of this, um, fence.

At 11/07/2010 7:08 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Please don’t get me wrong, John. I don’t claim to be a critic. I haven’t even read enough contemporary poetry to consider myself qualified to comment on it. I couldn’t tell an Avant from a Modernist fence-Post.

It’s just that I have always preferred my poetry in English as opposed to gibberish.

At 11/08/2010 3:43 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I also prefer English to gibberish. Common ground!

At 11/08/2010 3:45 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Sorry for being so retro. I was once described as the perfect reincarnation of a blend between Dylan Thomas and William Blake . . .assuming they both came back with half a brain. Ouch! Damn them! I would have much preferred Jeffers and Cummings.

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