Working Toward Ten Thousand Hours

By

It’s poker night. It’s 9pm and several of my friends are upstairs having a great time.I imagine there’s at least one cigar being smoked, a few potent potables sitting around on coasters, and a good deal of laughter.

Meanwhile, I’m at the kitchen table with my laptop, it’s quiet, I’m alone, and I’m writing. There’s a big part of me that would much rather be upstairs. I’ve heard a lot of accusations in the last few months that I’m antisocial because I don’t go out to fellowship with the other guys very often and instead choose to spend those evening hours writing.

It’s not a matter of being antisocial, though. It’s a matter of self-discipline.

mechanical-clock-3d-screensaveI read a book by Malcolm Gladwell a while back that made a big impact on the way I look at my writing. In the book, titled Outliers, Gladwell investigates the lives of highly successful people and looks at some of the factors that have contributed to their rise to the top of their respective fields. One chapter deals with something called “The Ten Thousand Hour Rule”. The idea is that a person needs to spend a minimum of ten thousand hours doing a particular thing before they achieve mastery of it. Only after that level of mastery is attained are they able to make the breakthroughs necessary to genuine success.

Whether the subject is Bill Gates working on computers for hours a day as a young boy, or Mozart composing a wealth of mediocrity before ever writing a timeless note, the story is that they’ve all done their time. Success at a skill requires practice and persistence and a minimum of ten thousand hours before you can expect to see the fruit of your labor.

That got me thinking that I spend every minute of the day getting better at something. If I’m brushing my teeth for two minutes, I’m getting more efficient at it. If I’m building a table for three hours in the afternoon, I’m learning how to be a better carpenter. If I’m sitting on the couch watching TV, I’m getting better at doing that too. So what is it, I ask myself, that I really want to get better at doing, and why am I not doing that instead of practicing my channel surfing form.

So every evening when I get home from the day job, it’s time to get to work doing what counts. It’s time to write. It’s time to get better at what I love to do. It’s time to tick off a few more of those ten thousand hours.

The side effect is that the people around me have come to expect it of me just as much as I expect it of myself. Sometimes that expectation comes in the form of an encouragement or a reminder, but more often it comes in the shape of an accusation that I’m being antisocial. So be it. That’s something I can live with.I’m willing to let my poker skills wane in the short term because I’m betting my chips on the future.I’m refining my skills, I’m defining myself in my true occupation, I’m challenging myself, I’m creating something that I believe has an intrinsic worth far beyond that of an evening on the town.

So here I sit, metaphorical pen in hand, practicing my craft and watching the hands on the clock tick ever closer to the hour of mastery.

Profile photo of Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


24 Comments

  1. Greg

    not to be contradicting (a phrase that now lets me contradict), but what about getting better at fellowship?

  2. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Oh, there’s plenty of room for that, too. But I’m pretty sure I put in my ten thousand hours in that skill years ago.

    I should also point out that this article is written in the context of me editing my novel over the last few months, something that naturally takes precedence over things like poker night.

  3. Nathanael

    Ten thousand? I can’t even count that high!
    Do you have one of those ticker counter things that umpires use?

    Discipline is a tough one.
    We artists and writers are more free-spirited.

    In Matt’s post “The Most You Can Offer,” we tapped into the reality that sometimes the stuff we spend the least amount of time on ends up being the most profound offering.
    And yet that does not excuse lack of preparation. The 10 thousand (might as well be million) hours are actually laying the groundwork which allows that one “under-prepared” moment to have the impact it does because what we’ve been studying and meditating on has become a part of our very being…if that makes sense.

  4. Aaron Roughton

    I quit taking Aikido (no joke) when the instructor told us that it took performing a movement 10,000 times before it became instinct. I’ve thought many times that if I only knew the guitar fretboard or piano keyboard as well as I know the computer keyboard I would be a musical master. How easily 10,000 hours goes by unintentionally. How difficult it is when the hours are intentional. May you not give up, and may you become an editing ninja.

  5. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Pete,

    Thanks for an inspiring reminder. I’ve read Outliers, and the article online “What It Takes To Be Great,” and also Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” and they’re all butt-kickers.

    I remember so many times through the years when people have considered me antisocial. My aunt used to say, “Ronnie, BEND!” when I was trying to consider the logistics of going on a trip and maintaining my practice time. There is a sense in which we have to appear selfish; by that I mean we have to often go against what others think is right in order to gain a position of authority in our unique calling.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Pete,

    You keep plugging away with all your heart and don’t worry about the clock. If this is your joy, then you will acquire the skills needed to produce the needed fruit. I have some thoughts on the main statement:

    “Success at a skill requires practice and persistence and a minimum of ten thousand hours before you can expect to see the fruit of your labor.”

    A few things are assumed here. The first is that you have the ability to perform the task at hand. The second is your performance each time is correct. Its not practice that makes one perfect but perfect practice that makes one perfect at anything. Third, this is a big goal or skill and not a little one.

    Also, on the first point, there is type of ability. Are you a decent golfer or are you Tiger Woods? The decent golfer can get better but 10 million hours will not make that golfer Tiger Woods. He’s unique. Mozart and to much lesser extent Gates are also unique. Thomas Friedman talks about this a bit in “The World Is Flat’

    There is also the assumption about the quality of the fruit. Who is judging the output or success? All those poor souls who labor under the false assumption they can sing only to be castigated by Simon and company. Even if it is just reality TV it is still a reality for many artists.

    We can produce an excellent product or skill but have no market for it. What is your definition of success? Or consider the points raised by Matt in the post Nathanael referenced. From what I understand “The Shack” wasn’t intended for publication. The author was goaded into publishing something he’d written for his kids. That book sold like crazy but, to quote Randy Jackson, “It was just okay for me dog.”

    I’d say that we can lean on Proverbs more than Gladwell. Proverbs 22:29 says

    “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.”

    As followers of Christ, we do serve before the King of kings no matter who else recognizes our work. Our efforts to become that skillful worker will be recognized by the One whose opinion matters most in this life and the next.

  7. Tony from Pandora

    “years of time” apologies for the redundancy! I meant to write ‘years of devotion’ I should try to hit the ‘preview’ button before the ‘post’ button

  8. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    In ten years it works out to only about 3 hours a day. Sheesh I remember spending 8 or 10 many days as a kid playing banjo and guitar. But of course, to gain a great proficiency in 5 years, double it.

    It all comes down to priority. “I don’t have time” really means, “I am not making it a priority.”

    If anyone has something they really want to get good at, get rid of television, video games, and excessive internet use unless those are the things you are looking to excel in. Make your passion a priority (I’m preaching to myself here, too).

  9. kevin

    Ron said- It all comes down to priority. “I don’t have time” really means, “I am not making it a priority.”

    We all time to do what we really want to do. I know that sounds preachy, but it’s more to myself than anyone else. And it’s true, too.

  10. Aaron Roughton

    I keep hoping that one day I’ll be in a situation where mastery of some skill is required, like stick fighting or calligraphy, and I’ll rise to the occasion using my basic instincts which, as luck would have it, were programmed in a secret government operation that took approximately 10,000 hours, the memory of which has been erased from my mind only to be recalled at a moment of dire need, preventing me from having to spend my free time doing anything other than posting generally silly but unusually long single sentence posts on the Rabbit Room.

  11. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Leigh said, “A funny thing happens on the way to that 10,000 hours of discipline. You fall in love and it’s not so much work anymore.” That’s how I feel about playing music. “Gotta go to ‘work’ (wink wink nudge nudge).” It isn’t work, at least not most of the time – it’s a fascinating journey. There are hard bits, but even going through them is rewarding once I come out the other side.

  12. Chris Slaten

    I’ll just go ahead and throw in there that it gets really hard to do that if you are married and I am sure it’s even harder to do that once you have kids. Do any of the family raising artists out there have any tips on ways to devote this kind of time towards mastery?

    I’ve been in a similar state of mind recently, Pete, and one thing that I have noticed, as he put it in the War of Art, is that now that I have given it time I have been given “help”. Have you noticed that now that you are giving the work the time it needs things are finally starting to fall into place?

    I have griped about not being able to finish a song for four years and now that I have devoted time, an hour or two a day, to writing lyrics I’ve been able to finish two songs. I used to complain that it just wasn’t there or that they just needed more time in the oven, but now it is starting to look more like I have been the no show.

  13. Stacy Grubb

    Ron said: “That’s how I feel about playing music. ‘Gotta go to ‘work’ (wink wink nudge nudge).'”

    I refrain from using chat speak such as lol and rofl here in the Rabbit Room, but that’s exactly what I just did. Well, the former in the literal sense and the latter more metaphorically.

  14. Seth Ward

    Very nice!

    One cavil: Mozart never composed mediocrity. (Or at least, none have survived.) Maybe not earth-shattering, but relatively speaking, the opera he wrote at 12 is better than any opera offered before or since from a 12 year old.

    There are some people who are born with something beyond the “working man’s” capabilities. Mozart was one of them. He pretty much fell out of the womb composing “perfect” little pieces – however suited to his various stages of technical development. Beethoven on the other hand, who sweat blood and tears over every single composition (see sketch books), wrote plenty of crap.

  15. Peter B

    Thanks for the encouragement as you work, Pete. I could use that reminder about ten thousand times.

    It is definitely much tougher with a wife and kids — but seriously, who needs sleep?

  16. Joy C.

    Hey Pete:
    Ravi Z. once said, “Without a determined sacrifice, we will never accomplish the purpose for which God has called us.”

    We gotta take our best shot at what we think that is. Bless you. Joy

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