The 10-000 hour rule

I’m currently reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which has brought me face-to-face, once again, with the “10,000-hour rule.” What this says, essentially, is that to reach true expertise or proficiency in ANY field (music, programming, writing, sports, etc.), one must first accomplish 10,000 hours of practice. This divides out into about twenty hours a week for ten years.

At first glance, this seems incredibly hopeful — it means that the true secret to excellence isn’t inherent talent or special opportunities or being in the right place at the right time, but simply putting in the time. Dedication is the only thing needed, and dedication is one thing we have control over. Right?

Except that twenty hours a week for ten years IS a lot of time. If you have a full-time job that does NOT give you a chance to practice your passion, 40 hours are no longer available to you for practice. So if you add 20 hours of practice per week, you’re now essentially working one full-time job and one part-time job, which people have to juggle all the time — but often to the detriment of their homelife, their housework, their sleep schedule, and ultimately, their health. And remember, these 20 hours are unpaid.

An ideal situation would be one in which you could work part time and still make enough money to practice those 20 hours — but access to that ideal situation does, in fact, fall under the category of being granted a special opportunity (an unusually lucrative part-time job, a substantial reserve fund, a supportive spouse, etc.) For the rest of us, we have to make a choice: excellence in our passion, or balance in our lives?

I used to think there was nothing I wanted more than to excel as a writer. But you know what? That’s not what I want more than anything anymore. What I want most now is to love my life. And squeezing in twenty hours of writing per week on top of my paid labor would quickly deplete me. The state of mess my house would fall into would drive me crazy. I’d resent the time not spent with my loved ones. I’d eat less well, and I’d sleep less well. I might become an excellent writer, but I’d feel like a zombie as a human being. Not only that, but the longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to appreciate a sensibility like Don Miller’s, in which he refers to sitting down to write as “harvesting the crops,” whereas the planting and sowing of those crops comes in living life. And it doesn’t do anyone much good to harvest crops when we’ve had no time for planting.

So far, Gladwell hasn’t commented on how important it is to get those 10,000 hours in a relatively short period of time. When I do the math on my own writing practice, which has been about an hour a day since the age of 13, I come up with a mere 4,000 hours. If I add to that the amount of writing I do for work, I can bump that up to about 8,000 hours. If condensing “putting in the time” to ten years isn’t  required to achieve the excellence promised after 10,000 hours, then I feel quite content letting those hours continue to trickle in, slowly but steadily, over the course of my lifetime. If I don’t reach true excellence in writing until I’m middle-aged or ready for retirement, it’s a trade off I’m willing to make. I have a lot of crops to sow in the meantime.