The 10,000-hour Rule


So I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s third book the other day, Outliers, which is not about writers. But it is about success, which is good enough. And it says right there in chapter two that it takes ten thousand hours of dedicated practice to become a world-class master at any particular discipline.

(Such as novelist.)

Three things about this rule struck me. First, the “any” part. Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitan:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers [there we are], ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

The second thing that struck me was the total lack of exceptions to this rule. Aren’t there any geniuses, with a natural gift, who get there with only, say, 5000 hours?

Mozart
Apparently not. Not even people like Mozart.

Gladwell cites Michael Howe in his book, Genius Explained, who wrote, “Many of Wolfgang’s childhood compositions… are largely arrangements of works by other composers… the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No. 9, K.271) was not composed until he was twenty-one.”

And he had his 10,000 hours in by that time, see.

Well… what about Stephenie Meyer? She woke from a vivid dream in June 2003, drafted Twilight by August 2003, and had a six-figure deal by 2005. At this writing, 53 million copies sold. Genius? Luck?

(Don’t read too much into me mentioning Mozart and Meyer in the same freaking blog post. I haven’t read Twilight yet, but no matter how good it is, she’s not Mozart.)

(I mean, please. We all know Michael Crichton was Mozart.)

So I read up on Meyer. Turns out she earned a Bachelor’s in English in 1995. And she cited as inspiration for the Twilight series the works of Jane Austen, both Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Shakespeare. Since 2005, she’s been writing faster than her publisher, Little, Brown and Company, can publish.

King and Meyer
Ahem. You’re telling me she hasn’t been writing since she was twelve? That she doesn’t have a trunk full of crappy novels at home?

Stephen King, if memory serves, sold Carrie in his early twenties. What about him? Well, he wrote four novels before that, and he was publishing short stories at his school (and freaking out his teachers) in the eighth grade. King put his 10,000 hours in before Carrie, I’ll bet.

Gladwell says of the ten thousand hour rule: “The people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

Carrie Cover
By the way, have you done the math yet? 10,000 hours is:

Eight hours per weekday (full time) for five years.
Four hours per weekday (half-time) for ten years.
Ten hours per week (a weekend gig) for twenty years.

Which brings me to the third and final thing that struck me about it.

Which is that I find it encouraging. That’s odd. I must be somewhere near my 10,000 hours (I’ve thought about it and it’s impossible to tell. I keep crumby records). The ten thousand hour rule kills the notion that some of us will get published and others won’t, and it’s Lady Luck, that bitch, who holds dominion over us.

Just as there are no sneaky geniuses who cheat the rule, there are no cursed losers who grind away until they die. Gladwell described a study published in Psychological Review (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,”) and wrote that the researchers simply couldn’t find any “people who worked harder than everyone else, but just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.”

Nice. Even when I’m writing crap, I’m making progress. It’s a handy answer for my superego when it asks me, “Why are you writing when you should be working?!”

Hey man, this is, like, hour 9,973 for me. Back off.

(PS. If you know any exceptions to the 10,000-hour Rule, or if you know how many novels Meyer wrote before Twilight, please leave a comment.)

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13 Responses to The 10,000-hour Rule

  1. Here’s a post on the same subject from “Waiting for the Call.”

  2. There are a lot of books besides Outliers that can be handy for writers.

  3. Deana Birks says:

    I do not know how long Stephanie Meyer has been writing but I know that she is LDS, and many, many of them are good writers. Their religion requires them to keep diaries, so they have essentially written daily their entire lives. Even “former” and nonpracticing LDS are often good writers.

  4. kellyholmes says:

    When I first starting reading this post, I was NOT encouraged. I did the math before I got to the math portion — pulled up my Windows calculator, even — and I was CRUSHED that my 1-hour-a-day writing routine that I can’t even stick to would mean 27 YEARS before I’m fully baked.

    But then I realized that my blog writing, my writing for work, it all “counts” because it’s all helping me improve my craft. So maybe I’m close to that 10,000 after all…

    • Steve White says:

      Focused, reflective practice. Hey, if you can write one hour a day, I bet you could write two. What are you spending time on in your life that’s not paying off? Try dropping it, and use the time for writing.

  5. I play soccer as my passion. Im 15, and in my room instead of hot girls or posters of my favorite bands, i have pictures and vision boards of everything soccer, mostly Manchester United, related. I plan out my schedule each week to determine which days are my lifting days, outside soccer skills days, and rest day. I watch soccer all the time in my downtime, but I also read a lot, not just soccer but mostly history and philosphical books. i heard about this 10000 hour rule and it amazes me. why? to comprehend exactly what 10000 hours is, is amazing in itself, to understand the 10000 hour rule you must understand time, which is like trying to pour the entire ocean into the palm of your hands. its something you PHYISCALLY can not complete, but mentally of course you can. what im trying to say is if you are my age and your goal or dream is to do anything but you are working with a time period you may be discouraged by 10000 hours of doing anything but i am here to reassure you. 10000 hours is in your head. if you mentally wrote that book for 9940 hours then all you have to do is put it on paper for another 60 hours in order for it to be a big hit around the world. in my case if you played in a finale for the world cup dozens of times and thousands of hours but never been to the world cup then tell me what’s the difference for the guys who have actually been there and myself. its the mind that tells the body what it does or sees not the other way around. you do so much stuff to accomplish your goals conciously or not, 10000 hours or not you live life the way you feel. so if you feel rich, then you are living rich, if you feel beautiful, then you are truly beautiful, if you feel like you are a proffessional soccer player, then you are one. 10000 hours or not your mind can’t comprehend time so tell yourself you have 20000 hours every day and truly feel it, 20000 is my number what is yours?

  6. […] At that moment I remembered The Ten Thousand Hour Rule. This concept was popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. The idea is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery that is associated with being a world class expert – in anything. (Here’s a succinct overview of the concept.) […]

  7. Ross says:

    I’m actually not a writer. I’m an aspiring filmmaker. I sort of just stumbled upon your post, and I’m glad I did. Great stuff! Thanks Steve!

  8. […] a new concept increases with each concept already learnt. Roughly 1,400 hours into Gladwell’s 10,000 hours threshold, I’ve become able to pick up a new languages and frameworks in days, though getting good […]

  9. This 10,000 hour rule seems interesting. This is what my Martial-Arts teacher says with great emphasis on words. I think its time I need to check this out.

  10. Jim Weldon says:

    I’ve worked on this 10,000 word rule for years. I started at age 22. I’m now 76 and finally – – done. The problem I face now is; I can’t remember what I was working on.

    • Steve White says:

      Someone crass might point out that it’s 10,000 hours, not words, but I won’t. I’ll just give you points for tenacity, Jim. 🙂

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