When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.
I first heard this idea not from Gladwell but a writing teacher over twenty years ago, when I was 13 (and just starting to form some serious ambitions of my own). “Fiction writing,” she told me, “has a ten-year apprenticeship.” Years later, attending a workshop in San Diego as an unpublished writer, I heard this echoed in the words of a published novelist I went to dinner with: “It takes at least ten years to figure out what you’re doing,” he told me, “and in many cases, fifteen.”
Ten thousand hours equals…guess what? Ten years.
‘Practice’, though, turns out to be too general a term. If twenty years of experience can mean the same year of experience times twenty, then Gladwell’s rule can mean the same hour of crappy, half-hearted practice times ten thousand.
And that won’t get you very far.
It has to be the right kind of practice.
It’s called “deliberate practice”.
Understand that talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, “The evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”
To see how the researchers could reach such a conclusion, consider the problem they were trying to solve. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.
What separates the great from the rest is no secret. It’s like your mama told you. Nose to the grindstone.
….even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule…and as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years’ experience before hitting their zenith.
Except it has to be a particular type of grindstone.
Cal Newport has an excellent post at his blog Study Hacks that lists the characteristics defining DP, which he regards as “the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life.”
THE SIX CHARACTERISTICS OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE:
1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
(The characteristics of deliberate practice, as I pointed out in a blog post of my own, feed directly into ‘the zone’ or ‘state of flow’, where time disappears and you lose yourself in what you’re doing…which makes those ten thousand hours fly by a lot faster.)
Newport observes that
“most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”
It seems, then, that if you integrate any amount of DP into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers. And breaking through this plateau is exactly what is required to train an ability that’s both rare and valuable
Because as Colvin observes: “…. the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge.”
So what does ‘deliberate practice’ look like if you want to be a fiction writer in the twenty first century?
I sold three novels to two major publishers (Penguin and Simon & Schuster) and I’m still putting in a lot of deliberate practice of my own. I wrote my first novel when I was 14. I am now 37. And I’m just beginning to feel confident that I know what I’m doing.
If I could go back and give my younger self a blueprint for DP, it would look like the following. Some of this, I always did. Some of it, I could have done sooner and more often, and I would now be further ahead as a result.