So my friend Karissa first exposed me to the idea that a skill or an art could only be mastered after ten thousand hours of work (Googling reveals to me this idea was recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers).

10,000 hours breaks down “manageably” to twenty hours a week over the course of ten years.

Certainly! my mind says to me. But you can get there faster, because you are special! You are dedicated and neurotic and are willing to devote more of your time to the cause! Or whatever.

In March, when Karissa first told me about this theory, I made myself a checklist of hours. (One box to tick for each hour I’d spend working on my writing.) I only made 150 boxes, figuring my reward for checking the first 150 would be to draw up another 150.

Today, I ticked off box #22.

I fear I am not an outlier, nor really on a very good path toward making myself into one.

I wonder if there’s anything in the world I’ve spent 10,000 hours doing. I think it’s a safe bet that reading is on that list (how could it not be?! I have no way of doing the reckoning, but it just seems unreasonable to think I haven’t wracked up 10,000 or even 20,000 or 40,000 hours over the years). So maybe I’m a master reader. But I don’t feel like a master reader. Sometimes–in fact, quite frequently–I am humbled in the act of reading. I encounter things I don’t understand, things I can’t make myself care about, things I’m unwilling to parse through or unable to digest. Surely a master reader would glide through these challenges like Kim Yuna through a spiral.

Disheartening. I’ll go back to work now.

(I spent 15 minutes writing this post–do those minutes count?)

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10 Responses to counting

  1. Wisteria789 says:

    I used to regard walking while not reading to be wasted moments.

  2. Simon Hay says:

    I think there’s something in this. I have moments in my life where I regard myself as being 90% successful. I bet I was at 9k hours. I’m guessing I’m almost at 10k hours for writing. If history repeats itself I’ll fail and have another story for my grand kids of almost making it. The only thing, if I’m completely honest, that I’m a master of is healing, but I’ve been doing that my whole life (I’m 47), even when I wasn’t aware of it. I’m good at lots of things, but great at one. I was an award winning student and athlete at school, but left school at 16. I was unhappy at home. I can see this pattern in my life – potential, but not quite making it: rugby, karate, boxing, relationships, being a father. I see and heal these energetic patterns in clients, everywhere really. I could make lots of well reasoned excuses for not being successful, but I think the real reason is fear. Fear of being great is worse than fear of failing. If I make it to 10k hours of writing I’m certain I’ll be published, and published well. It’s that, there’s something more in life thing, but there’s not. It’s right now, the imperfection of boredom is perfect. We can be in love forever, throw the same kick, perfect the same five lines, and the routine of this makes us great. We don’t have to work hard to be successful, or be a super freak, we just have to not give up. I’m hanging in there for 10k’s of writing. See you at a book conference soon πŸ˜‰ You feel happier πŸ™‚ We’re outliers! We’re masters of being us.

    • I am happier, Simon! Ha. Does it come through that clearly?! You must be a very in-tune person indeed to sense it all the way from across the world πŸ™‚

      And yes, fear is definitely THE enemy. I’m not a very fearful person (although sometimes I do succumb), but I do suffer from fluctuating priorities. However, as a person who works with writers professionally, I’ve seen a lot of people sabotage themselves out of fear. It’s very hard to shake people out of their fear if they’re not ready to let go of it themselves. What you say couldn’t be truer.

  3. I’m reminded of the criteria for taking the Red Seal chef test. There are a few dozen skills to be signed off on, with the recommendation of 6000 hours of work experience. Maybe it’ll take a given person 8000 hours to cover all the basics. Maybe they’re a gifted cook with a good mentor and it’ll only take them 5000. The exact time doesn’t particularly matter — it’s just to make sure that a student doesn’t think they know everything after 150 hours. And even after the Red Seal certification, no chef is an all-knowing master. That’d need a few more lifetimes to achieve.

    That’s why I tend to think that 10 000 hours of writing is a loose figure. It’s just a suggestion that you’re not going to bang out a perfect novel in a month or two and be a bestseller by Christmas. And even after 10 000 hours, you won’t experience a glorious ascension to writing nirvana (probably). Everything is to be taken with a little salt and a generous portion of effort.

    And hey, professional editing experience will surely count toward some of those writing hours? I wonder what the exchange rate is.

    • I hope you’re right about that loose figure, Heidi. Maybe some of my language-related hours are transferrable among disciplines.

      I love the concept of an exchange rate.

      And yeah, I don’t think it matters if you’ve spent 100,000 hours writing if you haven’t spent at least 10,000 hours reading. You know?

  4. JES says:

    Funny: right about the time I read, “…I made myself a checklist of hours. (One box to tick for each hour I’d spend working on my writing),” I started thinking, Umm, I bet you’ve spent at least 10,000 hours developing obsessive tracking and status-reporting systems — the log of every book you’ve ever read, the goal to read N books in X period of time, and so on. That’s probably not the sort of mastery you had in mind, though!

    Years ago I took a weekend writing program given by David Gerrold. He had us decide what our daily word-count goal would be — completely up to us, whatever we ourselves thought was “right” — and graph, over time, not the ACTUAL word count but the percent achieved. (This was an ingenious twist, because it allowed us to adjust the target up or down as time went on.) Mastery, he maintained, simply consisted in meeting or exceeding the 100-percent mark over long periods of time.

    Tracking hours? I don’t know. Sounds suspicious to me — way too many variables creep in. (Not the least of which is: how much can you write in an hour?)

    This Saturday is the annual Write Your *ss Off event sponsored by the NYC Writers Coalition; “all” you agree to do is devote some standard number of hours (6? 8? I forget) to your writing on that day. You can do this without writing a single word — just by researching markets, say, or by attending some day-long writing seminar. It indeed feels like an accomplishment at the end of the day, no matter what form the “devotion” took. But — to me — it didn’t feel as good as if I’d actually written for that long, or at least written however many words it equates to.

  5. Karissa says:

    You know, in Gladwell’s book, ANY time spent towards that pursuit counts. Not just the writing. I count the hours I read WITH THE INTENT OF UNDERSTANDING CRAFT counted towards those hours. You can’t get better at writing from writing alone. You have to understand how to make your writing better. The writing exercises I do, the workshopping. I think that all counts.

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