10,000 Hours*

That's how long, according to the experts, it takes to become expert at something, say, writing academic prose or fencing.* Not "talent", not "genius", but 10,000 hours of practice. At 40 hours a week, 50 weeks in the year (giving yourself a bit of vacation), this means five years of full-time work. And full-time means full-time; it won't do simply to show up at the gym or the library and stand around talking. 10,000 hours means 10,000 hours of concentrated effort and attention under conditions of high relevance, that is, pushing yourself to the edge hour after hour, for years. Most of us can't really work all those hours in the day with full concentration, so realistically it's going to take more like ten years to make our goal, practicing--really practicing--some four hours a day, five days a week. You might be able to compress it a bit by practicing on weekends, but it's still going to take upwards of seven years to even come close.

Now that's a sobering thought. At a maximum, I manage some nine hours a week at my fencing club, but actually practicing, that is, being on the strip, probably only half of that. No wonder it's so difficult for me to compete against the high school and college fencers who have the luxury of practicing every day of the week, three or four hours a day. At this rate, it's going to take me, let's see, fifty years to clock up 10,000 hours. Even if I managed to use every minute of the time that I'm at the club, it would still take me over twenty years. At this rate, I'm never going to make it; I simply won't live that long. (Okay, maybe if I fence until I'm 93. I suppose it could happen.)

I could simply quit my job and spend all of my time on the strip. But aside from the fact that outside of high school or college varsity teams it's difficult to find fencers to practice with that much, I'm not sure I really want to. Think about what it would mean. Not just the financial and physical demands (nobody is going to pay me to fence and my knees are already giving me twinges); rather the sheer psychic effort of practice. Let me tell you a little bit about what it's like doing something that I have spent 10,000 hours on: being a writer.

I've been doing this now, academically, for the better part of twenty-six years, if you count the time that I spent in college as part of my training. Before that, I kept a diary for a good five years, writing every day for an hour or so, not to mention all of the writing that I did for school. I only really starting practicing--hours and hours at a stretch--when I got to graduate school, however. It took me two years of writing--writing, that is, not reading my sources, which took another two years--six hours a day, five days a week to finish my dissertation, at which point I realized that I still didn't know, really, how to write. And then I got a job.

There's nothing in the world for concentrating the mind like a tenure clock. Talk about conditions of high relevance. Seven years from day one of working nine or ten hours a day, much of this to prepare one's syllabi and lectures, all with the knowledge that if, at the end of it, one hasn't written a ground-breaking book, one will be out of a job--it gets your attention. Plus, I didn't want to write just any book; I wanted to write the best book I possibly could, which meant that everything I wrote for the dissertation was only so much raw material. Not to put too fine a point on it, I had to start all over again.

I don't mean to make myself out to be exceptional in this experience; I've read lots of books on writing (are you surprised?), and most writers seem to have gone through something similar. Moreover, I have colleagues who manage to write (or I should say, publish) much more than I do. Sometimes I think I'm really something of a slacker when it comes to putting words on the page. The point is--and, ironically, I'm not saying this well--nothing one writes is ever enough. I'm going through this again, now, trying to get my thoughts together for my second book.

You would think by this time--twenty-six years into my practice--I would know what to do. And, in a practical sense, I do. I know how to do literature searches and find out what others have been saying in my field; I know how to find the sources that I need and how to think about them. I can put the material I'm studying into context, and I have a fair sense of what kinds of historiographical issues are at stake, although, of course, these can change as I do the work, indeed, should. I have outlines and chapter plans and notes of things that I want to say. But--and here is the big but--none of this is actually writing. It's all only so much preparation, like the warm-up one does during footwork or lessons or drills.

It's the writing that counts. And what is it like, being here at the keyboard, practicing my craft? One fantasizes about feelings of expertise, of easy competence and command of one's métier, like Lord Peter Wimsey driving his Daimler or tasting a wine. Oh, to be so skilled that one might find the words simply tripping off one's fingers, every syllable perfectly placed to articulate thoughts so universally true that one's readers instantly recognize them as such only to gasp at the facility and elegance with which they have been expressed. Ha. If only. I won't say that every word comes as a struggle, but every word has its price. I'm in (mild, admittedly) agony over how well I'm managing to convey my thoughts now, and this is only a blog post. What if the stakes were higher and I were working on my book?

The thing is, they needn't be; higher, that is. Now that I have written my "ground-breaking" book, I could quite easily settle down and write more of the same--or could I? This is what I mean about the psychic costs of practice. It's not just that one must spend 10,000 hours of doing the same thing over and over again. I've certainly been typing for 10,000 hours of my life, but I don't really consider it much of a skill. It's too easy (at least, now it is; it wasn't in college when we still used--gasp!--typewriters and couldn't just backspace over our errors). Nor is typing the thing I'm trying to practice.** Writing is organizing one's thoughts, searching for just the right word to say something that nobody else in the history of humankind has ever said in precisely that way. It is creating a world that does not yet exist, a world in which now I have made sense of a problem or told a story that nobody else had even suspected was there. I could spend my life repeating ideas that others have formulated (teaching involves some of this), but that would be the easy way out. It would not involve sitting here at the keyboard, day after day, looking one's own inadequacies straight in the face.

There, I've finally said it. My fantasy about writing, as much as about fencing, is there coming a day when everything just flows, nothing is too hard, everything makes sense. It's never going to happen. At least, if I want to become truly expert at either, it's never going to happen, because being an expert does not--ironically--mean being able to do something easily. It means constantly living on the edge, practicing under conditions of high relevance and concentrated effort, never allowing the last thing that one did to be the last thing that one does, but always only the raw material for the thing that one is practicing now. And that hurts. Sure, I can write a blog post or a letter of reference or a talk for a conference without panicking overmuch; much of what we call expertise consists of having been there so many times before that one has mechanisms in place for dealing with the panic and can get on with the task. But never resting on one's laurels, never allowing for closure, never saying to oneself, "There, that's the best I can do; I don't need to practice anymore": simply thinking about it is making me weary.

So there I was at fencing practice last night, thinking about how many hours I had still to go and about how, to count as practice, they needed to be hours in which I pushed myself, over and over again, to my edge, and I could feel the question rising up in my subconscious: "Why bother?" Here is the real secret of expertise. Not just the hours, but the motivation to keep practicing, the mysterious desire to be doing *this* *now*, for, of course, if one feels one's practice as nothing but drudgery, one will hardly continue. I'm really not sure why I write. I remember having fantasies about becoming a writer, stimulated in large part by reading the published diaries of Anne Frank and Anais Nin, but I don't seem to feel any urge to write fiction, the more usually acknowledged "call." Nor do I seem likely to write journalistic essays along the lines of David Foster Wallace (may he rest in peace). But I do seem to need to write--as here--and communicate my thoughts to the world.

And so I am willing, day after day, to sit at my desk, searching for what it is I need to say. The thing is--the real thing is--it is never--not if it is real practice, that is--without risk. It's like being flayed over and over again, skin gone, nerves left exposed to the elements, nothing to comfort you, not even the thought that it will be better next time, because it won't. Sure, I'm better at it than I was twenty years ago, but that only means the challenges that I set for myself are all the greater. Twenty years ago I was just starting work on my dissertation; now I'm dreaming of writing best-selling (in academic terms) books. And yet, and yet, and yet, I still feel like a beginner. 10,000 hours? If only that were enough.

*No, I didn't get this from Malcolm Gladwell, although he talks about it in his new book. See K. Anders Ericsson, “The Acquisition of Expert Performance: An Introduction to Some of the Issues,” in The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games, ed. K. Anders Ericsson (Mahwah, N.J., 1996), pp. 1–50.
**Things would doubtless be different if being a typist were actually my job and the speed and accuracy with which I typed mattered more than it does now.

Comments

  1. Here is an interesting piece of research that bears (!) on this issue: thinking about practice (even a physical practice) has many of the same benefits as actually doing it. For example, music students imagining doing scales, or tennis players imagining serves, were found to improve as much, over a short period, as people engaged in the actual activities. Weird, yes? But promising. Now you just have to imagine bouting as you ride on the elevated, or soap up in the shower. This should gain us another 8 hours a week, easily!

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