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!