10,000 Hours

April 22nd, 2011
By

The other morning while having my coffee, I was listening to Bobby Curran's sports talk radio show on 1420 AM, and he mentioned an article about a guy who quit his job to spend 10,000 hours practicing golf. I instantly knew where the idea came from: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers book. Although I haven't read that one yet, I'm a big fan of his prior work, Blink and The Tipping Point. Those two books should be required reading for entrepreneurs and marketing professionals.

Outliers makes the connection between "genius" and perseverance, using a tangible measurement to achieve greatness: 10,000 hours or 10 years, which ever comes first. It's not a new theory. In Japan, for instance, one had to spend several years being an apprentice before they could become a sword maker or sushi chef. In China and the USSR, they would identify young children with athletic potential, then put them in a rigorous training system that would last for years before they competed in the Olympics. Artists and writers throughout time have also said it took years of effort before they excelled at their craft.

But can an average guy transform himself into a professional level golfer using the 10,000 hour theory? Bobby Curran and most of the callers didn't think so. They believe you need a certain amount of natural-born talent or physical skills to start with. That's probably true. What if he chose a different challenge that didn't involve athletic ability? Can someone become a great writer, artist or musician through sheer effort and perseverance?

The latter question is harder to answer. When I started screenwriting over 10 years ago, I had some initial success right off the bat... but I had been doing other kinds of writing before my first script. Then I read in a screenwriting book that it took most pro screenwriters around five years (or five to 10 scripts) before their big breakthrough. My guess is most were doing other types of writing for at least five years before they attempted a screenplay. Yet I know many writers who have been toiling away far longer, and their work just doesn't have that zing or spark you look for. In basketball they say, "You can't teach height." In art, you can't really teach creativity either. You have it or you don't.

But I do think you can improve your creative output through persistence and taking tips from successful professionals. One thing I discovered from reading screenwriter interviews is many of them said by forcing themselves to sit and work on a project for at least 2-3 hours per day, five days a week, at a certain point, their subconscious starts to take over. It's true. Characters and story lines come to life after three or four continuous days of writing. In sports, practice may not make you perfect, but if you stick to that same sort of schedule, your body develops muscle memory.

At work though, how many of us devote 2-3 hours per day to getting better at what we do for a living? I know, I know -- who has time for that. But that's what you need to do if you want to achieve something greater than what you're doing now. Ten thousand hours may seem daunting. The thing is you don't think about the end goal. You focus on the first step... the first words you write... the first putt you attempt like that aspiring golfer. One day at a time.

And then, if you stick with it, maybe you'll get a book or movie deal like that golf guy will be getting for coming up with a great gimmick. Gotta hand it to him -- I wish I thought of doing something like that! But he isn't the first either. Many people have written books or made films based on similar stunts: living according to Bible rules for a year; eating only food from McDonalds; "Paper Lion" and other non-athletes trying to make it in pro sports. Which just goes to show there's nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes said.

Here's the link to the article about "The Dan Plan" golfer. Quite interesting.

Speaking of "borrowed" ideas, there's a blog link that is popping up on a number of writing-related sites called "How To Steal Like An Artist," which is actually pretty good. Click here (fast read, simple visual graphics).

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2 Responses to “10,000 Hours”

  1. Mr. B:

    Great post, Rich. My thoughts:

    To reach the ELITE level of athletics, one needs a great amount of genetic potential. One needs a certain body type to be an NFL offensive lineman, a world-class marathoner, an elite gymnast, etc. Similarly, for certain jobs, one often needs skills that you must be born with. What makes one surgeon average, and another "world-renowned"?? It's those intangibles - great hands, a gifted eye, and a "feeling" that cannot be described.

    With that said, I do think that "putting in your time" and "paying your dues" is very critical. A great foundation is necessary. I'm not so sure if you can put a "number" on it. The QUALITY of practice is probably more important than the quantity of practice.

    I really like your point about putting the time in the get better at what we do. No matter what our jobs, all of us should be making an effort to "get better" at what we do. Reading widely is very important. I believe everyone should be reading at least one book per month. Attending conferences, workshops, and seminars is also very important. They are often expensive, but it is critical to keep learning.


  2. Rich Figel:

    Thanks, Mr. B! Unfortunately, I think our current culture puts more emphasis on instant results. The days of young people working as apprentices for years while learning a craft are pretty much gone. Athletes want to bypass college and turn pro as soon as they can. Musicians and singers go on YouTube and expect to sign recording contracts before they even hit puberty.

    Just curious, Mr. B, but what line of work are you in? I ask because you mention conferences and seminars -- sounds like you are or were in sales and marketing... or business management?