While Malcolm Gladwell may be an annoying gadfly at times, in his assessment of the importance of practice in mastery, he’s dead on.
Ten thousand hours, he explained in Outliers, is the amount of time believed needed to achieve true proficiency whether as a musician (like The Beatles whose years of nigh-constant performances in Germany put them over the top) or in other fields. Like, say, academic history or writing.
Those five years I spent pursuing the Ph.D.? 5 years * 40 hours/week * 50 weeks/year = 10,000 hours right there. That gave me a basic mastery of my field of history, though: not a mastery of writing. I managed to work my way through my thesis pretty painlessly once I stumbled upon an approach that worked for me (write from the middle, starting with something you know well and want to incorporate – worry about the introduction and conclusion later). I wrote, but not nearly as much as I read, researched and pondered. Five years of doctoral studies didn’t make me a proficient writer.
The problem is, neither did becoming a full-time academic. While in the last months of being ABD, I was hired here. I struggled with a new full-time job and the crazy expectations that included: teaching in fields far abroad from my grad school preparation although I’d studied widely, learning arcane elements of academic administration as I stepped into a major position before I was tenured, being expected to do all of this while bringing my French up to speed in a bilingual institution. I wrote, yes, but not nearly as much as I needed to write. Somehow, writing became more and more difficult, at least in my conception of matters. Plus, there was always teaching and administration that needed ‘doing’. Not to mention life!
That said, I wasn’t content with the status quo. I love to research and share the results. I was just out of practice and unsure of how to best get back in the swim of things. That’s when I borrowed Outliers from the library and hit upon this motivating tidbit. 10,000 hours? I was willing to devote serious amounts of time if it would help me out.
This year, I’ll have written somewhere close to 80,000 words and edited far more than that. Over the last few years, I’ve put writing and editing back at the top of my priority list: not easy to do in a term such as this when I’m also responsible for teaching five classes and almost two hundred students. The hard effort’s paying off: I’m writing better and I’m editing with more facility. I’ve clocked a lot of hours at the keyboard and that’s made it easier to plan out how these 5000 words or those 7000 words need to come together.
I’m not saying I’m an awesome writer. I’m not saying that my words will set the world on fire. I’m just saying that I can write well enough to meet my expectations and occasionally exceed them.
I suspect, if I sat down and figured it out, I’d have passed another 10,000 hour milestone recently. Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell!
4 responses to “10,000 hours”
This is good to hear. Too often we don’t hear about effort paying off . . . just about difficulty, or new levels of challenge, or whatever. And I like thinking of the 10K hours as partly done already, rather than starting from where one is.
I figure if I still know how to ride a bike, those thousands of hours of childhood are still strengths upon which I can build. The same goes for writing! I may be a bit rusty after a long lay-off, but I don’t have to start from scratch.
Great reflections on your career and how you are managing all those bits. Being an academic means juggling a lot of different things and writing too often falls through the cracks. It’s good to see an example of how making it a priority works. I read between the lines that you didn’t worry so much about how efficient your writing time was, but rather focused on building the habit, improving, etc.
Leaving perfectionism aside is tough: whether it’s putting down that one more research book you really should read, plotting out the number one writing priority you absolutely should follow or polishing your prose perfectly. Since I got back into the writing habit, I’m content to let my first drafts be rough as all get out and put the editing off until the whole section’s done. This has served me so well that even if I face an extensive rewrite, I’m still better off for having something done early in the game versus putting it off or waiting for that ideal ‘free day’.