The “Ten Thousand Hour” Rule — Does It Actually Mean Anything?

CLOCK’S TICKING BRAH. Photo credit: wwarby on Flickr.

While chatting with my partner-in-crime Tracy McCusker of Dusty Journal this afternoon, we started talking about the hoary old guideline of 10,000 hours to master your writing (or whatever skill you’re attempting to master). At which point she dropped this delightful bomb of bitterness into the conversation:

If I see that 10,000 hours, I CAN MAKE YOU DO IT QUICKER tidbit on another blog, I am going to hate-spew a geyser.

First of all, 10,000 hours? That’s a handy approximation that may or may not be supported by scientific testing. Instead it is provided as *whatever kind of metric* everyone can use! But bam! with my SHAM-WOW WRITING COURSE I can cut that down to 8,000. What a bargain?!

Disclaimer: I haven’t read Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book in which the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule” is first mentioned, and I don’t really have a problem with the rule by itself. I believe the myth of “overnight success” is one of the most poisonous lies in our profession. I do, however, think that obsessing over the raw numbers themselves is a mistake. If you’re truly seeking mastery of your craft, there are better places to put your focus than how many hours you’ve clocked.

1) Make mistakes.

There’s a reason all the books on writing tell you to write every day, or at least as much as you can. It’s because all the theory in the world won’t teach you anything until you dive in and start getting dirty. The 10,000 Hour Rule is less about the hours themselves than about cultivating passion, routine, and a wish to learn from your mistakes. Of course, you can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t start making some. So strap on your helmet, get in there, and start screwing up.

2) Fail outright.

One of the shaggiest adages from life’s Barrel-O-Advice is that “you learn more from failures than from successes.” There’s a terrific Ira Glass quote about this that sums it up more beautifully than I ever could, so I’ll just post it here.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Note that Glass doesn’t mention “hours” at all, but rather a body of work. Of course, building a body of work takes time, but the work matters most. Time is the means. Work is the end.

3) It’s not the hours, honey, it’s the mileage.

Say you were to write twelve books, all featuring the same plot, the same characters, and the same basic story arc. Maybe you change a few details here and there, but essentially you write the same book twelve times. Have you really gotten any better? Have you learned anything? If you have, it was probably by accident. The hours you spend should not be comfortable hours, breezily covering the ground you know well. Push yourself. Write something scary and exhilarating. Make some mistakes. See how it all fits together?

4) It’s not a numbers game.

Seriously, no Hours Police are going to show up at your door in overcoats and porkpie hats and chastise you for not putting in enough time. If you have indeed turned out a book before it was sufficiently polished, or sent out a query before you really have it nailed, your time deficit is likely to be reflected in unhappy readers, poor reviews, and rejection slips. Again, the real point of all those hours is to fire up your passion and your drive, not check off ten thousand tiny boxes with a #2 pencil.

5) Find what works for you.

Of course, all writing advice is ultimately disposable, including the advice you’re reading now. Maybe you’re a prodigy with enormous talent and you’ll make the squishy, uncertain status of “mastery” in 5,000 hours. Maybe you’re busy and unfocused and it will take 20,000. Either way, you’ll get there when you get there.

Which is not to say you should just relax and assume it’ll all work out — quite the opposite. One of the biggest lessons you learn as a writer is what a cruel and cunning enemy time is. His arsenal of weapons (deadlines, fatigue, scheduling conflicts) is enormous and daunting, and you’ll have to fight him every step of the way.

Don’t focus on how long you’ve been fighting. Learn to fight smarter and fight better. And above all, keep fighting.

  • I was just quoting that same Ira Glass saying (actually, in a video, which makes it extra snazzy)! The “large volume of work” resonates with me, partly because (I guess) that’s been my approach from the beginning. But I see it reaping dividends along the way. I especially like #3 – only substitute “I’ve been writing the same novel for 10 years.” That’s not the way to forward progress.

    • Thank you, Susan! I’m envious of those people (like you) who understood the “large volume of work” approach early on, because it took me a long time to come to that realization.

  • Pingback: Finding the Flow State in the Age of Distraction - Surly Muse()

  • I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the “threshold” concept of mastery. To an extent, you will have breakthroughs on occasion, but they aren’t set moments like 10,000 hours or a million words or anything so arbitrary.

    Great post — the bottom line is always going to be to just keep swimming and absorb whatever knowledge you can on the way. Always strive to be better. 🙂

  • Kern Windwraith

    Hold on while I cancel my order for that handy-dandy stopwatch I was hoping would allow me to track my every writing second.

    Seriously, though, like a few other Gladwell theories, I don’t think the 10,000 hours threshold stands the test of close scrutiny. If only writing–or any other complex human endeavour–could be reduced to such a simple, not to say simplistic, formula.

    Love the Ira Glass quotation, and I second your invitation to try and fail and then try again. And again. Because, bottom line, that’s what it’s all about. Taking those risks. Stripping away the safety nets. Giving yourself permission to make a total hash out of a good idea.

  • One of the best pieces of advice I heard from my art teachers was that we all have a hundred thousand bad drawings in us. If our creativity is like a pipeline, those bad drawings are near the spout, and the good stuff will never come out until we clear all the bad stuff out. So, they said, draw your ass off. Don’t worry about it being bad, just get it out and keep getting it out. The flow and quality will gradually improve until you get to the good stuff.

  • Pingback: The Early Bird Catches the Link | Becky Black()