20 Oct 2014

10,000 Hours To Expert

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Copyright Benjamin Miller (via FreeStockPhotos.biz)

Expert (adjective): Having a great deal of knowledge or skill in a particular area.

When I first started writing I had this idea, like a lot of other people no doubt, that I needed to be specially gifted to be a writer.  In order to succeed, an innate talent was required that, with a little nurturing, could be set free to wow the world.  When I began to give writing a go, I was keen to find out if I had that talent or not.  If I did I would continue.  If I didn’t, then I’d give up and look for it somewhere else.

While I still believe that to be a brilliant writer you do need a certain spark that can’t be taught or learnt, that "innate talent" thinking was challenged when I started hearing about the idea of “10,000 hours to expert”.

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”  Thomas A. Edison

The 10,000 Hours concept is presented by Malcolm Gladwell in his amazing book “Outliers”.  I’m not a big reader of non-fiction, but this is compelling reading (and I heartily recommend it).  He’s a natural storyteller with a phenomenal ability to take complicated statistics and ideas and put them across so that they can be understood.

His premise is that:

“The emerging picture from such studies [into expertise] is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.” Neurologist Daniel Levitin in Outliers.

Gladwell cites fascinating and quite surprising examples to back this up.  Bill Gates’ success has often been attributed to his remarkable talent and brilliance.  It’s true that he is both remarkably talented and brilliant.  But he also benefited from, in his own words, “an incredibly lucky series of events”.  To cut a long story short (which you can read more of in the book – I’m not on commission, honest!), he had exceptional opportunities in computing at his school and then in other influential centres of learning through “lucky” contacts.

“…all those things came together.  I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time.”  Bill Gates

By the time he set up Microsoft he’d already done way over 10,000 hours of computer programming thanks to those opportunities.

Mozart – who many often think of as a child prodigy as he began composing at six-years-old – put in his 10,000 hours before he wrote what’s considered to be his first masterpiece (at around 21-years-old).

The Beatles too.  Like Bill Gates and Mozart they had immense natural ability.  But Lennon and McCartney had been playing together for seven years before they broke into America.  In those seven years they’d had an exceptional opportunity too, playing in Hamburg, Germany, often for eight hour stretches, seven days a week.  They'd put in their 10,000 hours.

“By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times.  Do you know how extraordinary that is?  Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.  The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.  “They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back…they sounded like no one else.  It was the making of them.” (Philip Norman, writer of the Beatles biography “Shout!”)"  Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers.

In some ways this 10,000 hours revelation was depressing.  That's a LOT of hours.  If I write for about 20 hours a week, that’s 500 weeks or approximately 10 years, until I reach that amount.  When you’re forty-something, already frustrated that you haven’t pursued your writing dream sooner and have possibly only notched up 1,000 hours so far, it can feel like it’s going to be a very long time until you reach that level.

But the 10,000 hours idea is also encouraging.  It means that when you start out on whatever endeavour you’re pursuing, you might not be as good as you expect to be.  This concept stops me from being lazy and giving up if I don't find myself at expert level as quickly as I'd like.  Most, if not all, of the geniuses we admire had to build on their natural talent with practice, practice and more practice. 

Therefore the more I write, the better I get (allegedly!).  When I’m feeling that the endless editing process is a hard slog I can take comfort in the fact that every hour spent on it is a step closer to becoming a more proficient writer.  Writers’ block gets pushed aside as well, because I’m not waiting for inspiration to strike or my “gift” to kick in.  I’m putting in the time and effort to make my book a reality.

“There is no substitute for hard work.”  Thomas A. Edison (clearly a smart man!)

So, onwards and upwards!



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Meriel says:

Yes. We use the 10,000 hours ideas a lot with our kids. Better to learn about it aged 10 than forty-something!

Mel Green says:

It would have been amazing to know about it years ago – my life would have been very different (which is not necessarily a good thing though)!  It certainly would have been interesting to have kept pushing on with things I gave up at when my natural talent reached its natural limits.

Kirsten says:

Love this post Mel. Giving me the nudge I need to keep photographing an keep practicing that guitar! 😀

Mel Green says:

Thanks Kirsten!  I love watching you work towards your 10,000 hours 🙂

chelsea says:

I've never heard of this before but find it incredibly profound. Some what disappointing being that I wish I was already at my last hour, right before success. 🙂 I love this though and will be grateful that every hour, whether good or bad is part of the process.

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