“The people at the top don’t work just harder, or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell

drawing of pencil pusher

Photo Credit: Zsuzsanna Kilian

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell discusses research by K. Anders Ericsson suggesting that expertise and success are far from being just about talent. They are built slowly, from deliberate practice: roughly 10,000 hours worth, the equivalent of four hours per weekday for ten years, two hours for twenty years, and so on.

You might think, Well I’ve certainly written for more than 10,000 hours in my life! Where is my name on the best-seller list?

We may want to reconsider how we are practicing. The authors of Freakonomics, in a New York Times Magazine story on Ericsson’s study, explain:

“Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task—playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.” Read More

Writers can ask themselves this question: Am I doing some writing task today, even if just for an hour, that counts as deliberate practice?

  • Does thinking about writing count? No.
  • Does reading about writing count? No, although it helps in other ways.
  • Does blogging count? Maybe, if we do it with focus and with concentration on technique.
  • Does writing or editing part of a planned work in progress count? Absolutely.

Author Mark Terry puts it bluntly:

“If you want to be a professional writer—fiction or nonfiction or poetry or whatever—you’re going to have to put in the time. You’re going to have to write a lot—a million words, maybe. A lot of it will be crap. A lot of it will never see the light of day. You’ll need to move through ‘familiarity’ to ‘mastery’ and in between those two there’s a fair amount of boredom and frustration.” Read More

Are talent or luck involved at all? Yes, but, let’s face it: We can’t control those factors.

The refreshing aspect of Ericsson’s conclusions is that we can control how hard we work, one hour at a time.