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?