10,000 hours

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, he makes an interesting observation. In any relatively complex discipline, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. This 10,000 hour rule seems to apply equally to music composition, software development, writing, sewing, playing hockey, anything. No matter what you do, you don’t do it at a professional level until you’ve spent 10,000 hours at it. There are no shortcuts. Even Mozart didn’t produce what people consider his best work until he’d spent 10,000 hours composing.

Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I figure I’ve spent about 4,000 hours writing in my lifetime. Maybe as much as 5,000 if I’m seriously underestimating my blogging. I’ve probably spent less than 1,000 hours writing fiction. Assuming I can lump fiction and nonfiction together, that means that even if I buckle down and spend 2 hours a day, every day, writing fiction until I get my 10,000, I’ll be ready to start writing quality work at the beginning of 2016, at the age of 44. I’ve factored in a few skipped days here and there, since I know even at my most diligent there will be days where social commitments on top of my day job won’t allow for 2 hours of writing time.

Seven years. Seven years of writing stuff that I know I won’t be able to show anyone, because I’m not good enough yet. The thought fills me with overwhelming dread, for several reasons.

First off, I know that in that amount of time I’m going to burn through every idea I currently have in my development notebook. Every project I’m even marginally excited about must be sacrificed to the monster called “learning the ropes.” By the time I’m ready to write professionally, I’ll have to come up with all new material. That part doesn’t worry me, since I know writing ideas are like buses: another one will be along eventually. But I also know there’s no way I can spend seven years writing about “filler” topics and characters that I don’t care about. So I have to waste the stuff that I’m currently passionate about just to make it work. That’s a pretty depressing thought, moreso than wasting a block of stone or a canvas for practicing other art forms.

Secondly, I’m acutely aware of how much that seven years of daily writing sounds like work. Gladwell also posits that if the work you’re doing is fulfilling, if it’s something that you’re passionate about, you’ll do it anyway and the 10,000 hours will come easily as a side effect of how you choose to spend your time. As much as I feel like I should be, I’m just not jazzed about the idea of writing that much “practice” that is unlikely to ever get published. I write on average 500 words an hour for fiction (1,000 or more for nonfiction), so we’re looking at 2,500,000 words, 2.5 million, before I’m “good enough.” That’s 15-25 average length novels. So far I’ve written 2 and half novels and a novella. Ten times that output before I’m good enough to go public makes me want to crawl under my couch.

And lastly, “good enough” for what? Even if I get my 10,000 hours in, that puts me at the same skill level as professional novelists like King and Grisham. It in no way guarantees the same degree of success. Gladwell also points out that success in any field has as much to do on who you know, how you were raised, when you were born and where you grew up as it does on individual achievement and hard work. So while I might be as good, technically, as my favorite authors, I might have no better results in getting published and onto bookstore shelves than I do right now. Is that much work worth it when there might be no reward?

Oddly, 10,000 hours of blogging feels totally doable, completely unlike fiction. Two hours a day of blogging, pointing out stuff on the net that interests me as well as writing original articles like this one, is definitely more than I’m doing now, but it would be a pleasant and engaging use of my time. It is also just about guaranteed to make more money for me than fiction thanks to Google Adsense, though probably never enough to support me without a day job. But that doesn’t matter. I’m in it for the LOLs, so they say. So maybe the problem here is my insistance on hanging on to fiction when that’s not were my lasting passion lies (I’ll probably always get a “bug up my ass” to tell a story every now and then, but the excitement never lasts long enough to write a book anymore).

What have you spent 10,000 hours doing, and does it sustain you, or do you sustain it?

5 thoughts on “10,000 hours”

  1. I’m always unsure of how to think about blogging in relation to fiction writing. I sort of informally subscribe to the “million words of crap” rule, which I think is a cousin of the “10,000 hours rule.”

    My blog, despite some incompleteness in the archives, is starting to get pretty close to the half-million word mark, while my fiction is probably slowly creeping towards the quarter-million word mark. I don’t know if this means I have another couple of years before I’ve made it, (modestly figure 120k of blogging a year and *hopefully* 60k of fiction?)

    In a lot of respects blogging comes out of a very conversational place. At this point blogging is like sitting down and having a conversation with an old friend: not only is it comfortable, but I’ve come to rely on as a way to work through various ideas. Who knew.

    Arguing for the “seperate queues,” is the fact that I don’t really find fiction to be like talking to an old friend. I have to work through it a few times, I can’t just sit down and write a 400-400 words based on 2-5 words’ notes. Maybe it’s a case of different expectations, maybe it’s about attention spans. I’m not sure.

    On the side of “combined queues” I have the realization that my fiction has also become more conversational, and even if I don’t have a particularly firm grasp of novel writing, I’m pretty good at writing dialogue. Character motivations and plots? A weak point. But by gum my dialogue usually rings true. Also I think my work in the last couple of years has more thematic strength, which I think is the result of having the blog as a venue to play through ideas. And age. Age helps. For literary related purists having more experience to draw on I think always helps. I’m convinced that being a bit older helps at least as much as the experience “in the wild.” Which certainly helps as well. Whether you measure in hours or in words, the important part is the opportunity for successive experimentation. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself…

  2. Jeff, as a friend I call bullshit on your conclusion. I agree in general with the 10,000 hour million word to mastery idea, but the concept does not take into account innane talent nor the idea of “good enough”. Jeff to use the idea of crafting in LOTRO, you have to start somewhere and you can sell your wares from the start. You might not get as much silver for apprentice or journeyman things as for artisan items but you get something. And as for burning thorough your ideas and characters, again no soup for you. You are thinking of those ideas and characters as paper plates you have to eat on and throw away. Wrong. They are your literary capital. Sure, you may write crap and even after the best effort you can make Josh will tell you that its crap still. You don’t flush it, you put it away. Composting if you will. At some point in the future when the 10,000 hour fairy comes and waives her magic wand and declaims “Jeff Kirvin, I declare you a professional writer!” you go start digging in the compost heap and refine what you find. With refinement, you have the finest loam that you can turn into the great american novel.

    I would say that you are a good journeyman writer and can write salable stuff NOW. I think you have some self discipline issues that make it hard to buckle down to write and refine the stuff you already have and cause you to seek reasons you should not put your work out there to be abused by unfeeling wreches (aka editors and agents and probably Josh C)

    Just my thoughts.

  3. Actually, Gladwell’s book spends quite a bit of time on the ideas of “good enough” and “innate talent”. (There’s a threshold for good enough or smart enough above which more doesn’t matter, and talent doesn’t really exist, it’s a combination of opportunity and work ethic).

    I know I can write. That’s not the issue. The issue is that haven’t put in the time to achieve mastery and lack the motivation (a key component of “talent”) to achieve it. I enjoy writing fiction, but enough to put in 10,000 hours? I don’t know.

    As for revisiting previous works and rewriting them when I’m more skilled, I’ve tried that. I’ve tried that many times, and I just can’t keep the passion going. Once I’ve told a story, there’s no thrill in retreading it no matter how much I think I can do better now.

    As for just sending out what I know to be journeyman works and trying to get them published anyway (which, hey, is what Mozart did), I’m not sure. There are parts of Between Heaven and Hell that make me absolutely cringe now. I’m not sure I want work that isn’t ready for prime time representing me out there.

  4. What about learning on the job? You’ll learn most about writing and getting published by actually doing it. Write well enough to get a first book published and then do better second time round.
    I can think of two top ten paperbacks I’ve read in the last six months that were poorly written first novels. They had good story ideas but the dialogue was cringe worthy in places and the characters were two dimensional and stereotypical, still they made the top ten and probably a good amount of money for the authors.
    Another example – Lindsey Davis, one of my favourite authors. I started reading her Falco series half way through and read the rest out of step. Eventually I reached her first novel, one not part of the series. It wasn’t as well written but the story was wonderful. She has definitely learned on the job.
    You also use John Grisham as an example of a good author. Yes, I agree but I enjoyed his earlier work better, when he was experimenting with his style and even the tense he wrote in. His newest books have been lack lustre, as though he didn’t put in the effort or probably because he was so practised he didn’t need to. Maybe too much practice can breed complacency. It certainly does in other professions and it then becomes a dangerous thing.

  5. Practice is good! Practice is not necessarily essential to be good at at something, or even great at it. Putting an arbitrary number of hours on what it takes to master something is beyond silly. Everyone’s different. Shaquille O’Neal probably spent 10,000 in his career practicing free throws and he still stinks beyond doggy doodoo. Steve Nash was probably a better free throw shooter in grade school long before her ever put 10,000 hours in. I was an 84% free throw shooter in high school and I rarely practiced. It’s a gift, which is the main ingredient Malcolm Gladwell’s missing from his equation. I’n not saying practice isn’t a good thing, I’m saying people are born with something undefinable that puts them way ahead of the class.

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