Wednesday, October 7, 2009
10,000 Hours Under the Sea
One of the things I find inspiring about ol' Snoopy is his perseverence. He may not be the best writer in the world, but he sticks to it. He puts in his hours. Even rejection and criticism can't keep him down...
He's always back on top of his doghouse typing "It was a dark and stormy night..." There's something to be said for that. I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, a book about success, and his 10,000 hour theory struck home with me. That is, for most things it usually takes about 10,000 hours of purposeful practice to achieve true mastery. Music, sports, art... 10,000 hours.
Now that's a daunting number in many ways, a whole ocean of hours weighing on your head. Start doing a little math... if you write an hour a day (which is great!) for a year you will end up with 365 hours of purposeful practice. And suddenly you see how daunting that number of 10,000 hours really is. Do that hour a day schedule for ten years... and you'll be a third of the way to true mastery. That's... a lot of work.
And yet there's something freeing about it, too. There are no limitations, with the exception that you will get out only as much as you put in. You need some talent... but success will be determined by how far and how hard you push that talent.
The trick, of course, is persevering and finding that time. Life intrudes... which means we have to take advantage of our opportunities. And that's really one of Gladwell's key points... it's often our opportunities that define our success, but only if we take advantage of them. Opportunity is not enough... nor is drive and effort. But opportunity combined with drive is a path to success. Bill Gates, for example, had a truly unique series of opportunities presented to him, a one in a million sort of series. His success was determined by those opportunities... and by how he exploited them. In a sense, his opportunity was really a chance to acquire those 10,000 hours of mastery before anyone else and at just the right time. Fortuitous. But only because he took advantage of what was presented to him.
I think this holds true for writing. I have a BA and a Masters degree in Creative Writing, and the process of acquiring these allowed me an opportunity to see a lot of different writers up close. I got to see how they worked. And by the end of that experience I had pretty clear ideas on which of those people had a chance and which of those didn't, and these were based not on raw talent but on how much the writers worked, how much they put into their writing. One of the girls in my MA class had the least amount of raw talent among the students, but she had a chance... because she would outwork the others. Who improved the most over those two years? You guessed it. Now, of the ones who didn't apply themselves, well, a few might at some point be struck by an epiphany, by the necessity of work, and apply themselves. But not many, I think. Gladwell, I'm sure, would note missed oppportunities, missed hours of practice. But the girl who worked... she was giving herself a chance. She took an opportunity and ran with it.
The only one who wrote more than her, in that class, was me. I'm thankful for this now, because I can see Grad School for what it was: an opportunity. Not because it would sprinkle me with the Magic Pixie Dust of Talent, or that the credentials would open doors for me... but simply because it was an opportunity to focus on writing. Two years with writing as my primary focus... and that held true for every writer in the class but few of them took full advantage of it. It's easier to drink beer and throw a few pages together to meet a deadline than it is to write four or five hours a day. And how many would have written nothing at all without the deadlines?
So that M.A. program was an opportunity, a chance to work toward those 10,000 hours. I took advantage of it, and am thankful I had that chance.
But that isn't always easy. We're not always presented with such opportunities. Working a day job, taking care of children, friends, family, housework... opportunities can be difficult to find. You have to root out those little opportunities... and then exploit them.
So... perseverence. What helps you get up on that doghouse each day? What helps you put in those hours? What helps you come back to the next story in the face of rejection or criticism (or the Red Baron shooting down your plane)? What pushes you to keep looking for those opportunities to write?