Not many people have heard of Anders Ericsson, but it sometimes seems as if almost everybody I speak to nowadays has heard of his ideas. Or at least his most famous idea, which is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to move beyond mere competence and get really good at something.
It’s the most compelling idea at the heart of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 best seller Outliers. Gladwell argues, for example, that the Beatles’ stint playing clubs in Hamburg (1200 gigs in four years) honed their craft and provided the foundation for all that followed.
The 10,000 hour rule, as it is now called, seems intuitively right. When I was a kid my grandmother looked after my siblings and myself. There wasn’t a lot to do at her house, but there was a table tennis set which we were allowed to set up on her dining room table. I had a competitive older brother and we racked up a lot of hours on that table. I got pretty good at finding the edges and arcing the ball over the net low and at speed.
So I know that muscle memory is an important part of acquired competence: it’s been true of any sport I’ve ever played – the more I practiced the better I got. Obvious.
The 10,000 hour rule has been so widely accepted, and is beginning to be more widely applied, which is making me scratch my head and question it a little. Not the rule itself, but the way people are starting to apply it.
Is it true, for example, that I have to write for 10,000 hours to become a good writer?
Is it even true that practicing for 10,000 hours made Lennon and McCartney good song writers?
I buy the idea that practicing for 10,000 hours made The Beatles better performers. Of course. It seems obvious it would, even without Mr. Ericsson’s research. But I think it’s a stretch from there to say it improved their compositional skills.
So I took a little look at Anders Ericsson’s work and discovered that his findings relate specifically to expert performance in domains like chess, music and sports. I’m not denying the cerebral cognitive dimension of a game like chess, but performance at chess is obviously related to experience in a way that creativity isn’t. When we’re talking about cognitive tasks which involve creative leaps, I’m not at all sure practice, that is the mechanical repetition of certain moves (shots, chords or whatever), will make much difference at all.
What about writing? I’ve heard it suggested, by more than one person lately, that it takes 10,000 hours of writing ‘practice’ to make perfect. Or to achieve a decent level of competence. But I find myself wondering about that. Is it the writing which improves, or the typing?
William McGonagall practiced his poetry for 25 years, with no discernable improvement. John Keats was only 26 when he died, and wrote his first surviving poem at 19 – a 7 year work life. There’s no doubt his poetry improved over those 7 years, but I question if that was due to practice, per se, or the group of poets he was practicing with (Leigh Hunt, Byron, Shelley).
I think there are much more important factors at work than practice. For The Beatles I’m pretty confident that performance – practice in front of live audiences – helped them hone their song-writing skills. You find out pretty quickly what works and what stinks when your audience has never heard of you and has been drinking all night.
But it also matters who you practice with. This is true in sports, where a pretty poor game will tend to improve if you match yourself against a superior opponent, and is certainly true of chess, where you will learn a lot from a master.
What about writers? There’s no direct equivalent of performance for writers, so we had to invent one: the writing group, or workshop, where we get to air the early versions of our work to amuse and confound our fellow writers. Without this kind of regular feedback, I would venture to suggest, no end of writing ‘practice’ will help us improve.
The better the feedback the more we are likely to improve. There are other factors too: reading the work of other good writers, reading books written by good writers about how they do what they do.
And practicing. But 10,000 hours of practice, in a vacuum, will not, of itself, make of an average writer a great one.