10,000 hours

I’ve heard before, from some unrecalled source, that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert at it. I don’t know how much stock I had put in that figure, other than to think well, of course, the more practice you put in, the better you’ll be at something. Turns out the story’s much more interesting.

I just finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. (I read The Tipping Point a couple of weeks ago. I highly recommend both books. Gladwell has a writing style that pulls you easily along, so it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a nonfiction book. The central theory of his books could easily be summarized in a short essay; the magic of his books isn’t so much in the case they’re arguing as it is the many different stories he uses to support his idea. The stories are amazing. AND they prove his point.)

So. I just finished reading Outliers. The central concept is basically that talent is only a small part of what contributes to an individual’s success. Though he never tries to quantify it himself, I might suggest the equation is something like 1 part talent : 2 parts circumstances : 3 parts opportunity : 4 parts hard work. Essentially, you put in your hard work and then when opportunity knocks you’re ready to answer the door.

In discussing this he talks about the 10,000 hours idea. What is cool is that he backs it up with examples pulled from real-world success stories as diverse as Bill Gates, The Beatles, Mozart, professional hockey players, a NYC big-shot lawyer, among others. In all these cases, he shows, the individual put in hours and hours of time and practice developing their skills. Roughly, it turns out, ten thousand hours or more.

Bill Gates spent ten thousand hours, evenings and weekends and the wee hours of the morning in some cases, programming. Much of his early hours he did on his own time, with no expectation of compensation. Simply because he loved it. When his first (pre-Microsoft) opportunity fell his way, he’d already put in so much time he was an expert at it.

The Beatles had a number of stints in Hamberg, Germany, playing seven nights a week, eight hours a night, for a nightclub. After a couple of years of this, they’d racked up a lot of hours together, perfecting their style. By the time of their first big success, they’d performed live together some 1200 times, which is more than most bands do in their whole careers. Even music students attending a premiere academy – a study showed that the ones who have the potential to end up as world-class soloists are the ones who’d put in 10,000 hours of work, give or take, by age 20; those who are symphonic-orchestra good but not soloist-good had about 8,000 hours; and those who’d eventually become music teachers or other less elite positions generally had about 4,000 hours.

Gladwell lays out half a dozen examples of breakout successes who’d put in their 10,000 hours before the opportunity arrived that either became, or lead to, the success they’re known for. It’s interesting how universal it is. Talent is only a tiny part of the equation, and it doesn’t even have to be exceptional talent – an ability for the subject is enough.

And the other interesting thing is how success doesn’t come in one fell swoop. It’s usually accomplished in stages. There’s tons of practice, first. Then a small opportunity, which the individual is prepared for because of that practice. This afford more practice, of a higher-quality nature. Which opens the door for the next opportunity. And so on, until the breakout success. But the whole time, the individual is working hard.

This reminds me of this post I did a while ago, linking to a post by Rick Riordan, talking about how “success” is never overnight, and many bestselling authors’ first published works were not actually bestsellers. For instance, The Hunger Games was Suzanne Collins’ sixth published book. Plus how many books had she written before that first one got published? There are the talented and lucky who strike it rich on their first try (*cough*Twilight*cough*), but I suspect for most bestselling authors, they’ve spent a lot of time writing before their first break-out book.

One other thing Gladwell mentions, which I want to share because it spoke to me, was how these 10,000 hours never felt like a penance to these individuals. They weren’t doing it just to put their time in so they could then become successful. They were doing it because they loved doing it. It was hard work, but it was fulfilling work, and it made them happy. From the book:

…there is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that’s worth more to most of us than money. Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful. Being a teacher is meaningful. Being a physician is meaningful. So is being an entrepreneur … When Louis Borgenicht came home after first seeing that child’s apron, he danced a jig. He hadn’t sold anything yet. He was still penniless and desperate, and he knew that to make something of his idea was going to require years of backbreaking labor. But he was ecstatic, because the prospect of those endless years of hard labor did not seem like a burden to him. Bill Gates had that same feeling when he first sat down at the keyboard at Lakeside. And the Beatles didn’t recoil in horror when they were told they had to play eight hours a night, seven days a week. They jumped at the chance. Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.


5 responses to “10,000 hours

  1. Hmm, so my band practices 3 hours a week, about 45 weeks a year, plus maybe six 4-hour shows. So…. just 63 years until we can make it big! Of course, our bass player will be 123 by then so he might not be as nimble with his hands as he is now. ;)

  2. This is completely off track, but you mentioned the Beatles, and my husband used to be a drummer. He said all drummers are jealous of Ringo b/c he was in the right place at the right time. Pete Best quit just before the Beatles made it big.

    Also, my sister quit the band my parents had, and my dad likes to call her the Pete Best of their band, which I think it hilarious.

    Unfortunately, writing’s a bit more solo than being in a band, so I don’t think you could really get to be the Ringo of the writing world.

  3. Yeah – I’ve also seen Twilight held up as one of the few exceptions to this rule. Oh well, I guess we can’t all be Stephanie Meyers.

  4. Even though 10,000 hours sounds like a lot, I actually find this more encouraging than not. After all, anyone can put in those 10,000 hours if they’re doing something they’re passionate about. You don’t need to be insanely talented, you just need to have the persistence to keep going. For a writer, I think it comes to writing, rewriting, revising, and submitting your work again and again – eventually, you’re going to be in the right place at the right time with the right work in your hands and things are going to happen.

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