What was your adolescent dream ambition? Rock star, football player, violinist, chess master, actress, master chef, writer, film director, video game programmer, reporter, politician? I wanted to be another Robert A. Heinlein on most days. On other days, I pictured myself competing with Bob Dylan or Neil Young, but during those rare moments when I thought I was being down-to-Earth, I figured I’d become an astronomer. I became a computer programmer, and not even a very exciting kind of programmer, like those guys who program artificial vision or Mars rovers, but a name and address kind of database guy. Probably all of us, in our teenage fantasies, expected to do a whole lot more with our lives than we actual did. So why didn’t we become rock stars?
Malcolm Gladwell explains why in his new book, The Outliers: The Story of Success. To learn about one of the factors of success, read a significant extract in The Guardian. Gladwell makes the case that successful people, the kind that become rock stars or computer programming billionaires, succeeded because they all have devoted at least 10,000 hours of practice to their craft. That figure has been reported for years, but Gladwell explores the idea further and wider. Want to be the next Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or the Beatles, then practice a lot, a whole lot, for about 10,000 hours and you’ll be ready for Carnegie Hall.
I must be a genius at television watching because I’ve probably logged more than 25,000 hours watching TV. Ditto at listening to music and reading novels, but those passive activities really don’t count. And I know I’ve put in 10,000 hours at work programming computers, but I’m no Bill Joy. I’m nowhere near as good a programmer as my friend Mike. Mike has spent thousands of hours studying programming after work. I seldom do that. My guess, the 10,000 hours Gladwell is talking about, are those hours where you’re pushing your brain to learn something new, where you’re constantly trying to get something right, where you stay on the cutting edge of discovery.
Another factor I wonder about is age. Many of the examples Gladwell covers deal with people putting their 10,000 hours in before they were 20. That’s practicing 2.7 hours a day from the time you’re 10 till 20. What kind of kid has that discipline? Bobby Fischer, Bill Gates, John, Paul, George and Ringo.
To test this concept, we should start teaching about the rewards of 10,000 hour of practice to every kid that begins kindergarten and remind them every day until they finish high school. What if we all gave copies of The Outliers to every tiny tot expressing a desire to be famous, could we create a super ambitious next generation?
Would every seven year-old that was actually able to grind out his 10,000 hours of practice become a major success? If I could time travel back to my younger self and convince him to pick something and stick with it, would I have been able to become a rock star or science fiction writer? We like to think winners are big successes because of lucky genes, or the lucky bastards were at the right place at the right time. Malcolm Gladwell suggests it isn’t always so.
The answer I am seeking is whether or not I can use this knowledge now, at age 57. I’ve tried to play the guitar more than once in my life, but I doubt I’ve put 20 hours of solid effort into the endeavor. If someone had shown me this article before I bought my first guitar at a pawn shop when I was a teenager I might have saved myself $25. Then again, maybe I would have bought the guitar with more realistic expectations. But do the math. Let’s say I was disciplined enough to practice 1 hour a day. That’s 365 hours in one year. Ten years of study will log me 3,650 hours of practice time. That’s almost three decades to mastery. Gee, I could become a studio musician by the time I’m 97. I could speed up the process by practicing 2.7 hours a day and be looking for music work by the time I’m 67.
Are old dogs too old to become virtuosos. Gladwell said that music students who only gotten in 4,000 hours of practice were destined to teach. That makes me ask: How many hours until I’d be a competent hobbyist? Let’s say I wanted to take up the guitar again. How many hours would it take to learn 10 of my favorite songs, and be able to perform them for my friends so they could 1) recognize the tunes, 2) endure listening to all ten songs, 3) be willing to testify that I could play the guitar without smirking, and 4) be able to play those songs in time with other musicians? I’m not talking about being great, but being able to play like people used to do back in 19th century, when friends would play for fun because back then, if you wanted to hear music you had to make it yourself.
I can think of several hobbies I would like to be moderately accomplished at. I’ve recently taken up digital photography. I’m better than most snapshot shooters, but light years away from the good amateurs that I see presenting their work in online galleries or selling photos at arts and craft fairs.
I’d also like to be a better web graphic artist and master Photoshop. At work I develop web pages, but mostly for data entry and reports. I’d like to have the skills to create better looking web sites. This desire overlaps somewhat with the digital photography because people wanted more photos on the web pages I maintain.
Would 1,000 hours of applied practice make me a skilled amateur? There’s a chance I’ve already put in 100 hours at digital photography, and I can already feel a great deal of improvement. Would 1 hour a day of dedicate study and practice get me a quantum leap ahead by next holiday season? I think it would, despite the fact that I’m 57. I went and shot some friends yesterday for about 2 hours. Before I left I studied my camera’s manual and picked out a handful of new techniques to try. Knowing about those tricks didn’t magically make me shoot better pictures, but I was seeing different looking photos than what I’ve been shooting before.
Taking MFA writing courses helped me improve my fiction writing. Where I failed was the daily practice. If only I had developed the discipline to practice one hour a day since Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2002, I would have logged 2,200 hours of practice. I think I have put in 600 hours on blogging since last year, and I see improvements there. To be honest, I would be much better if I consciously studied creative non-fiction techniques and applied them in a systematic disciplined way. I should dissect great essays for practice. To work, I think practice means pushing the envelope.
January 1 is still over a month away, but an interesting New Year’s resolution experiment for 2009 would be to apply the techniques I’m learning from Gladwell’s book to see how far I can take this old dog brain of mine. If I really wanted to scientific, I should pick the guitar, something I’ve got about zero skill with and see how far I can get in one year. Does the 10,000 rule apply to everything? Or does it only apply to a person’s natural inclinations to pursue certain skills? If we all put an hour a day into juggling, would we all reach the same skill level after a 1,000 hours of practice?
The only song I can remember the words to is “Happy Birthday,” and I still stumble on that third line. I’ve listened to “Like A Rolling Stone” at least a 1,000 times, but I can’t recite the lyrics, nor could I hum the tune. A friend once taught me the chords to that song, and I got so I could play them through consistently, but few people could ever guess what I was playing. Logic tells me since I’m rounding the bend towards the home stretch to the social security years, I shouldn’t waste any of my practice hours chasing skills that have little chance of paying off. Would any number of hours of practice help a tune-deaf person lacking any sense of rhythm learn to play music?
The only endeavor I’ve stuck to in recent years has been this blog, and piddling around with my three other web sites, The Classics of Science Fiction, Lady Dorothy Mills and Classic Booklists, which are all extremely homely when it comes to web design. Let’s see what 400-600 hours of disciplined practice would do for these existing efforts.
To be honest, I’d still like to be great at something, but I think I’m too old for that. How many late bloomers make a success at 57? Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But is age really the factor? If success is dedicated focus and discipline, could it be those traits always show up by the adolescent years not because those are they best years to learn, but because if you’re going be focused and disciplined person those traits would have shown up by then?
I was never great at anything because I never wanted to pick one thing and stick to it, pursuing that one skill like an idiot savant. What would be fascinating to know if I could somehow discipline my brain to focus on one pursuit and ignore all other interests, would mastering that skill be any different at 7 or 57? If I was 27 or 37 or even 47, I think I’d try hard to find out.