How will you close in on your 10,000 hours today?

“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.

7 thoughts on “How will you close in on your 10,000 hours today?

  1. I love these writing tidbits. When I was little, I’d always say that I wanted to be an “author” and would constantly write away in my journal. These days, I would say it’s more of a fantasy. But your words of advice have been inspirational. Hmmmm.

    • Michi, thank you. 🙂 One of the wonderful things about writing and being an author is that it’s never too late. You have such a lovely writing voice and a sincerity in what you have to say. Keep writing!

  2. I love this post! I really embraced the 10K hours concept when I read Outliers, and shared it with my kids as well, especially my aspiring visual artist daughter. I hadn’t really thought, however, about the relevance of ensuring maximum return on the time spent. I’m going to monitor my own writing more carefully to make sure it is truly advancing my craft.

    I saw a good documentary yesterday addressing talent and practice, an HBO show on McEnroe and Borg (speaking of tennis). Borg would practice relentlessly, 5 hours a day. McEnroe had no patience for that, nor for his coach’s emphasis on exercises and activities non-tennis related, lessons that had worked for Rod Laver. But McEnroe’s coach knew he bored easily, and gave him leeway to do more activities on the tennis court rather than off. As for less practice, McEnroe admitted it meant he couldn’t play long matches as easily as Borg because the stamina wasn’t there. They both were the tops of their game at their peak, however, so each found his own path.

    • Patrick, thank you! The documentary sounds fascinating (my husband would love it, as he still reminisces about the McEnroe-Borg days). It’s wonderful that human beings are so very complex, and it’s a good reminder that even the most valid research can’t necessarily be applied to everyone, especially when creativity is involved.

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