This post first ran November 9, 2011. We’re revisiting it today as I approach another deadline and am reminded of those 10,000 hours.
I’m not sure whether Malcolm Gladwell was the first to identify this principle or was simply responsible for popularizing it. But his name is definitely associated with it.
The rule says that in order for an individual to master any complex skill, be it brain surgery or playing the cello, she must put in 10,000 hours of focused practice. Since a thousand hours seems to be more or less the maximum we humans can handle in one year, ten thousand hours equals ten years.
Of course there are exceptions. Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar at age nine. But, from my own observation, I’d say that ten-year figure is about right.
But what exactly are we learning when we’re beating our brains out all those years? What was Charles Bukowski learning while he was boozing and wenching and sorting mail at the P.O.? What was Henry Miller accomplishing in Brooklyn and Paris? Or Miyamoto Musashi dueling all those samurai swordsmen?
Skill, certainly. Patience, professionalism, many other things. But it was something much more subtle—and far more difficult. I almost hesitate to write about this, in that it borders on the mysterious and the sacred. I must silently (or not so silently) beseech the Muse’s permission.
What these masters were learning was to speak in their own voice. They were learning to act as themselves. In my opinion, this is the hardest thing in the world.
I understand why Zen masters give their students koans, i.e. unsolvable, logic-defying riddles. They are trying to crack open the young aspirants’ minds by making them hurl themselves over and over into a brick wall of futility until they finally and inevitably give up … and inexplicably succeed.
To speak in one’s own voice means to let go of all the other voices in our heads. Whose voices? The voices of what is expected of us. Yes, that means the voices of our parents, teachers, mentors. But it means something more elusive too. It means our own expectations of what we should be doing or ought to be thinking—what is “normal” or “right” or “the way it ought to be.”
“If you meet the Buddha on the road,” says the master, “kill him.”
In terms of the aspiring writer, we sit down and try to write the way we think writers write. If we’re painting, we paint like painters paint—or dance like dancers dance. What this means of course is that we’re writing like somebody else writes and painting like somebody else paints and dancing like somebody else dances.
The agony of an artistic apprenticeship comes from our inability to bust out of this self-imposed prison. People tell us to “break the rules” or “think outside the box.” But how the hell do you do that when you’re trying to? You can’t. It’s a koan. It’s impossible.
How does the actor get past his own excruciating self-consciousness? How does the entrepreneur come up with an idea that’s really new? The answer is they both beat their heads against the wall over and over and over until finally, from pure exhaustion, they can’t “try” any more and they just “do.” The writer says fuck it and writes a sentence in a way he would never imagine himself writing a sentence, and to his amazement that sentence is the first real sentence he’s ever written.
The price of achieving that breakthrough is time. Time and effort. Ten thousand hours if you’re lucky, more if you’re not. The gods are watching for those ten thousand hours, like instructors at Navy SEALs training. They can tell when we’re faking and they can tell when we’re for real. They can pick out those of us who really want it from those who are only pretending.
The worst part is there’s no guarantee. Put in your 10,000 hours in medical school and they hand you a scroll of parchment and call you a doctor. But try to make a movie, or write a symphony or paint a picture.
In the end those ten thousand hours must be their own reward—which is the way it ought to be, don’t you think?