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?


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

> 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?

I believe in my story, my ability to tell it well, and that someone will want to read it. I don't think I have as *much* optimism as Snoopy, but I'll trail along in his paw prints. :-)

Deb said...

Love the Snoopy toon. And a shot rang out! The maid screamed!

I think for me it's sheer determination, and maybe the fact that I'm not getting any younger. Also, I love writing, and I'm willing to put in the hours if it will "get me an 'A'" :)

10,000 hours. So I guess we have to ask ourselves where we would be in 10,000 if we didn't try?

Excellent post.

Bryan Russell said...

Hey, stubborness is underrated!

Mira said...

Love this post. Love what you're saying in it. If Nathan has another guest blog thing, I hope you submit this one.

Or that other one. That was good too.

Or...the other one...

Well, one of them. But I like this one especially.

The Sesquipedalian said...

10,000 is a rather daunting number. I'd better get busy...

Bryan Russell said...


Funny, I just finished reading your paragraph entry at NB's. Small world. And good work, by the way, as I enjoyed the opening paragraph.

The Sesquipedalian said...

Thanks for the compliment on my paragraph, Ink. It still needs revising (as does the rest of my WIP) but I threw it out to the wolves anyway -- got to start somewhere. The sheer number of entries in that contest was rather daunting, but I refuse to let it dissuade me.

Love your blog, by the way. :)

Emily Cross said...

This reminds me of this:

"John D. McDonald said that you had to write a million words before you really knew what you were doing. A million words is ten years. By that time you should have a definite idea of what you want your writing to sound like. That’s the main thing. I don’t think many writers today begin with that goal: to write a certain way that has a definite sound to it."

Definitely shall check out Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers!

GG said...

I sorta felt like Outliers was nothing but a book saying, "Hey if you're super talented, work really hard, know all the right people, and are damn lucky to boot, you got it made," in a much more eloquent way, of course.

Nathan's comment about you having access to poutine is what directed me to your fascinating blog. Ah, behold the power of food. Quebec food, that is =)

Much love~Gemma