Sunday, December 21, 2008

10,000 hours

This interesting looking fellow is the author of the new book, Outliers, The Story of Success, that Lisa brought up in the comments on Sunday. She took what he had to say and applied it to writing: ". . .those that are really successful, be it music, writing, business or anything else PRACTICE. Many, many more hours than the average."

True dat. Ten thousand hours, to be precise, according to Gladwell. (Read the book--it's short and fascinating--to find out how he reached that number.) This accords nicely with the ten-years-to-get-good-at-anything rule that I've heard preached for years. It also accords with the fact that every career writer I can think of has served his or her own version of a long apprenticeship.

As she read about all the time and practice it takes to be a success at anything, Lisa said that at first she felt disheartened--and too old!--until she realized she was already doing exactly what Gladwell says it takes. She has already put in three years or more, and many, many hours of "practicing" her writing. She does spend the time. She does practice, and practice, and practice, and she is getting better over time.

I think there comes a moment in every aspiring writer's life, no matter what our age, when it hits us how hard it is going to be to do what we want to do. I know that when I first plunged into fiction, it seemed fun and easy. I was exuberant and had all kinds of dreams and fantasies. But then came that inevitable moment when I realized with a shock: good god, if I really want to finish this and even get it published, this is going to be a lot of hard work! I wasn't ready. So I put it aside, knowing I didn't want it seriously enough to persevere. I didn't even feel any regret about putting it away, because I just didn't care enough. It would be another few years before the desire in me was strong enough that I found myself actually wanting to do all that hard work.

Personally, I think when an aspiring writer reaches those moments of realizing what it's really going to take, and feels discouraged, but then realizes, "I want this," and puts their hands back on the keyboard, then that's a meaningful point. It's humbling, and there are few things more honorable and realistic than simple, humble practice.

(Gladwell is also the author of Blink and The Tipping Point.)


Nancy P said...

Lisa, you gave me a post topic, thank you!

katiebird said...

I'm BACK! What a week (I think I can fit this into the topic)

At one point, I was taking my mom for a walk in the hospital. And she asked me if I wished I'd gone into nursing (note that she didn't say medicine or being a doctor) as a profession.

I laughed and laughed. I think I'd have busted a gut if I knew (then) that it would have meant spending 10,000 hours practicing either of them!

Good heavens. Doctors AND nurses (and anyone else you see working in a hospital) deserve a lot more respect.

AndiF said...

Hiya Nancy. Welcome back, kb!

Well I have way more than 10,000 hours practice at fending off my mom's guilting. And it's true that I am quite excellent at it. But other people who have had just as much practice with their mothers aren't very good at it at all, even though they've clearly got the talent to do so. So I think that practice isn't enough and talent isn't enough -- there's got to be the a a driving sense of need in order to turn practice and talent into achievement.

But speaking of practice, I've got more pictures of frost flowers so the Monday Picture Post -- as befits our wind chill of -17 -- can work at getting good at being frozen.

Frost flower candy spun. [LINK]

Frost flower candle lit [LINK]

Frost flower wings spread [LINK]

Morning all.

Jen said...

Ten thousand hours

For me the hours and the labor have been the easy parts. The exposure, though, I don't know how you all do it. I am pathologically self-protective. I have good reasons for it but so far that hasn't helped me conquer it.

wind chill of -17

Same here, ick, brr.

Nicola Slade said...

Yes, practice - that's what all those rejection letters were for! And Lisa isn't too old, of course she isn't - I'm not telling how old I was when my first novel was accepted, but it was, in fact, the seventh one I'd written! Some of the early ones are buried in a vault marked: 'Do not read these unless you want to cringe with shame!'
But it was all practice and very valuable, even though it was misery at the time!

It's greyish but dry here and there are a couple of foolish bulbs up, plus an even more foolish rose half out - it'll be sorry, soon enough so I might pick it anyway!

Paul Lamb said...

I agree that becoming a successful writer (which isn't necessarily the same thing as a published writer) takes years of practice, not only in the writing, but in reading and understanding. Equally important, though, and you've mentioned it, is the perseverance to submit, and submit again, and keep submitting.

For Truman Capote, this apprenticeship lasted only a year (if you can believe his own account) and for Jose Saramago it took something like fifty years. (It may be that I'm going to break that record!)

Nonetheless, I would take anything that Malcolm Gladwell has to say with a bucket of salt. He has been widely accused of cherry picking his anecdotes to support his theories, and apparently a lot of what he has to say doesn't match up to more rigorous studies of the subjects. I've only read Blink, but I found it more a collection of tales than a coherent whole. It was less than the sum of its parts. said...

Practice? Thank heavens this computer doesn't look like a piano. Then again if pianos had boobs I'd probably be Billy Joel by now.

Anonymous said...

Ah Ghostie, the world is a sadder place to only have ONE Billy Joel - you are too funny.

-17? Egads. We have way over 17" of snow on the ground from the weekend's storms, but it's a balmy 15. And it snowed 15 hours straight yesterday. No one is going to work from this house today - can't tell where the cars end and the driveway begins.

One of the things that keeps me writing is the knowledge that most published authors sat at a desk at one point, wondering why they were doing this crazy thing, if they were ever going to be published - and practicing their craft. We all have to start somewhere. And unlike music, where practice can involve something mundane like playing scales, in writing you can practice by actually producing something.

Anyway, thanks for the reminder. Now it's time for me to get back to work - I mean practice.

Stay safe in this crazy weather, eveyone!

Maria Lima said...

Ah, yes, like getting into Carnegie Hall: Practice.

Took me years of messing about until I realized that I truly did want to do this professionally. So I guess those were my practice time, as is my work now. Perhaps it's like doctors and lawyers. They practice medicine and law. We practice the art of writing.

Happy Monday all and stay warm. It's a sunny day but a brrrrrrisk 19F here.

Lisa M said...

Morning all.

Glad I could be of service, Nancy.

KatieB--I certainly want my doctor, nurse or those oh-so-early blood taking techs to have had plenty of practice before they got to me.
Taking mom for a walk--It's those little things that we do that are often the best gift this time of year.

Andi--Mother guilt. Now that's a topic many of us have plenty of practice with.
You are oh so right though.
"there's got to be a driving sense of need in order to turn practice and talent into achievement."
Without that need the persistence just won't stand up to the challenge.

Jen--pathologically self-protective, yet wanting to conquer it. Interesting.
I'm glad you share on the blog. You are often one of few words, but usually quite powerful, kind.

Nicky-- I love the faith in yourself to keep writing and make it happen.

Paul, I haven't read Blink. Tipping Point was interesting. I understand exactly what you say about being skeptical.

I'm hoping I do better than Saramago. Don't think I have 50 years.

Ghostie--You are so funny.

Waves to Beth & Maria.

Marvelous Monday to All.
Throw another log on the fire.

FARfetched said...

I write because it gives the words somewhere else to go instead of ponging around the inside of my skull.

10,000 hours is five years of a "typical" (i.e. 8/5) work. The problem there is that creativity (well, mine anyway) doesn't follow any kind of 9-to-5 schedule. Even if it did, time spent in research (teh Google, library runs, talking to people who do what one of your characters is supposed to do) doesn't count as time spent writing.

Nurse KB? Heh. Hope your mom gets better soon.

Andi, nice frosties. Your "guilting" quip reminded me of a pizza place I once frequented. They had a sign up, of a young woman with a spiked mo', piercings everywhere, and a big smile. The caption: "I Survived a Jewish Mother." I asked the lady in the shop who the survivors were. "My son and duwater." (New Yorker for "daughter") I can tell you though, that guilting isn't strictly a Jewish thing. My mom (enormously lapsed Catholic and proud of it) is a master.

Jen, the cool thing these days is that the old barriers are crumbling. They're still strong, and you still have to be either good or lucky (or both) to breach them, but people are finding ways to bypass them entirely and find their audience. The downside, of course, is that it involves mucho self-promotion (which can be as stressful as taking on the traditional barriers). And there goes another 10,000 hours of learning the marketing ropes. ICK.

Nicola, I have some short stories like that. I've even tried re-doing them… FAIL. They're just cast-in-concrete bad.

Paul, interesting take on Gladwell. I'm sure that there's a lot of that… when you're working from anecdotal evidence, I suspect there's a predilection to pick the ones that support your theory.

Ghost… same here. I had to walk over to Daughter Dearest's piano and check it, just to make sure.

Happy writing, Beth! Toss another log on the fire (I just did) and plotz away!

Maria, the weather is very similar here this morning. Maybe even a little colder. A perfect time to smack your editor, it will hurt more. :-)

Whoops, I see Lisa already suggested throwing another log on the fire. Got the week off now?

Nancy P said...

katie, welcome back! I hope your mom is progressing well. Nothing like having a close relative in the hospital during December to boost the stress level.

Ooo, Monday photos, yes, thanks! And, yeah, I think you can see that drive both at work and not at work in my own story on the f.p. Lots of ingredients to success, with practice being one of the main ones,and often unseen in that huge chunk o' ice below the visible tip of the iceberg.

Nancy P said...

::Puts an extra blanket around Jen's shivering shoulders!:: And, also yeah--those of us who are "blessed" with being greater exhibitionists sure have an easier time getting it out there. So to speak. :: runs and hides ::

I'm full of Yeahs, this morning, it seems. Yeah, it sure is misery sometimes, Nicola. It sure the heck is. I tossed all my cringe-worthy early practice sessions--those short stories, for instance, that found no home. I wouldn't save early piano playing lessons, and I wouldn't want anybody "listening" to my first fumbling fiction, either. Or my first attempts at long division. Or my current ones.

I actually love the l0,000 hour idea because it says to me--given actuary life insurance tables--I still could learn to play the guitar. Hee.

Nancy P said...

Yeah, Paul, I thought Blink sucked. Tipping Point was better, and this one is truly interesting, imo. There's also more to it than we're discussing for this particular purpose.

Lol, Ghost! The perfect example of Drive + Practice. Plus, god-given Talent, of course. (Can't stop grinning.)

Sometimes--but rarely--I wish we could "thread" this comment section, so I don't look like such a postho when I reply to everybody. Sigh.

FARfetched said...

Apropos to "practice, man, practice," the February issue of Asimov's has more than a few words of encouragement from Robert Silverberg. His column this month, "It Wasn't All That Easy," begins:

«I've been a professional science-fiction writer for something like fifty-five years now, have had so many books and stories published that I long ago lost count of how many there are, and never have trouble finding publishers to pay me what I write…»

And he goes on to talk about his years of rejection slips (he started writing & submitting while in high school) and of the encouragement he received along the way as well. He kept at it for five years (1949-1954) and finally broke through.

The website ( still has the January issue up as their "current" — but when they switch over, they'll have a link to the column. Worth watching for.

Nancy P said...

All that snow, Beth! Eegads.
You are one of the best practicers I've met--steady, determined, showing constant progress. You may have been temporarily derailed by life, but I have no doubt you'll get back on the track again soon.

And Far, may I just say that you amaze me and I'm even jealous of you, because you Just Can't Stop Writing. You've got that inner pull and push that won't let go of you until you get it all down on the web or the page. You Is a Writer of the natural, irresistible-force sort, which so many writers would love to be. Me, for instance. There are times when I am, but nowhere near--nowhere! near--as often as you are.

Nancy P said...

And, finally, (for now), Ms. Lisa who inspired it all. I hope you don't mind that I lifted you up and plunked you down in a post without your permission. (Slaps own hand) You, like Beth and Far and Jen and unseen others who read here, are the kinds of writers whom I see as Most Likely to Eventually Get Published, because you never give up, and you WANT it, and every time a discouraging word is said or a discouraging event occurs you find a way to spin it back into writing. Some of us have been at this long enough that we can see what you're doing and we know that you don't even realize how rare you are--those of you who keep at it in intelligent ways. You few, you mighty few. :: loving smile ::

Nancy P said...

Maria, I missed you comment! To which I can only add, amen, sistah.

Kelly McCullough said...

Strongly seconds what Nancy said about seeing the writers who have the want that is the real bedrock requirement to make it in the mad, bad, occasionally sad world of writing.

The balance number I've heard to 10,000 hours is 1,000,000 words, another nice round one. Interestingly enough, I sold my first book right around a million extant words but...the book I sold was written as words 400,000-500,000. Gotta go put on a bunch of layers now and venture out into the great white freezer (-8 currently).

Nancy P said...

Cool, Kelly, (in more ways than one)--so now we have 10 years, 10,000 hours, 1,000,000 words. I had never heard that before, and now I will flog it mercilessly.

So the real-life meaning in the round numbers lies in the picture they paint of somebody who wants it more than the average person and works at it FAR more than the average person does. We all deserve credit for that, you know? Both the old-timers and the new.

Timing, opportunity, and other outside factors are also vitally important. (Those elements--under the umbrella word "luck"--are important elements of Gladwell's book about success and the people who get it.)

I know you guys are going to say additional great stuff, but I have to go do Christmas shopping before the ice storm gets here by maybe tomorrow. So, see ya later, imaginators.

bono said...

Howdy. It's still cold here (17), but not as cold as yesterday. Hurray!

Lisa said, "Taking mom for a walk--It's those little things that we do that are often the best gift this time of year." Which reminded me of the Jesse Jackson quote, "Children need our presence more than our presents." I would broaden that out to include all loved ones.

As a reader, all I can say is - Thank you, writers, for all the practice that provides us with wonderful worlds of thought and escape.

Loverly pix, Andif. I'm afraid any frost flowers I might have seen are buried under the snow. Well, there's always next year.

Waves to all.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Excellent post, Nancy--I'm going to read Outliers soon.

And yes, I remember exactly when I realized how hard this was going to be. I was 12 and had been writing for 2 years.

And then again at 13, 14, 3 times when I was 15 and yesterday, too.

As my childhood piano teacher (who seemed ancient to me) said,
"Practice, practice, practice, you're never too old to practice!"
That was so annoying because it was true.

Nancy P said...

Hi, bono and Conda. Conda, you had that realization at 15!!? Good grief, you've put in your 10, 10,000, 1,000,000!

I saw a mention of the 10,000 hour thing in another context today, in a book I've heard is fascinating, called "This Is Your Brain on Music, The Science of Human Obsession," by Daniel J. Levitin. I got one for moi, and one for my boy for Xmas. On the back, it says, "why 10,000 hours of practice--not talent--makes virtuosos." I'll report back.

I feel bad that I said "Blink" sucks. Okay, I kind of did think it was thin and sloppy, but I also enjoyed reading it, and probably learned a few things, and I know that a lot of smart people love it. Malcolm? I'm sorry I said your book sucks, and I promise not to say it again, 'k?