Why I Love To Write #007 – The Myth of Ten Thousand Hours

Anyone that has ever learned anything difficult knows that it takes practice. There’s a saying that has become popular recently in regards to mastery, and that saying has a lot of people spending a lot of time on things they will never master. It’s one thing to get good at something; it’s quite another to master it. There are at least two sides to this argument, and both of them throw this seemingly arbitrary number into question.

The first argument is simple, and will make sense immediately to anyone living on a realistic version of Earth. We don’t all have the same advantages and disadvantages. Whether it’s physically or mentally or spiritually, some of us are very blessed and some of us are truly cursed; most of us are a creative mix of both. The mixture is different for each of us, though; and that’s why certain things come easier to certain people.

Some folks are wicked smart; and sometimes they meet folks even smarter than them. Could I learn to build a rocket ship in the same amount of time as someone who feels drawn to build them, even if I had as much brain power as the other person? Do we really think that ten thousand hours is the same for someone with an intelligence quotient of eighty as it is for someone with an IQ of one hundred eighty? What about all the places in between? Surely it’s a sliding scale.

And back to passion…it means a lot. Passion is the difference between want and need; it’s the solid line that gets drawn between hobby and art. A writer who is not passionate about the books they write, at any stage of their growth and development, is less likely to finish and publish and sell those books. It goes the same for any piece or product: the passion is what makes it great, not just the practice.

Think about how many musicians or authors had a huge hit in the beginning, followed by a lifetime of obscurity. They weren’t overnight successes, but they weren’t masters either: they were almost always at two to eight thousand hours around that time. By the time they got to ten thousand, if their passion carried them that far, few people cared what they were doing anymore. Are you a master of something if only you see it, if you stop practicing, or if you just give up?

Speaking of physical contests…I could train to wield a samurai sword, eight hours a day for five years(that’s ten thousand hours, with weekends and two weeks off each year: go ahead, do the math; I’ll wait). I could call myself a master, but I could never wade into battle against a dozen lesser samurai to prove it; those wars aren’t available to wade into anymore, and my ten thousand hours made me ready to fight battles that don’t exist. There’s no way to know if I could hold my own against a true samurai; even if there is, I either win one battle and go to the next or die. Mastery lost, in one telling stroke.

Which leads to the other argument. A lot of people are more attached to appearing to be correct than they are to actually being right. Every field I have ever worked in was full of people doing things that didn’t make sense to me the first time I saw them. I would ask why they did it that way, and the answer was invariably the same: “It’s how I’ve always done it”. This led to the creation of my favorite saying through my twenties and early thirties: “You’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years; would you like to learn how to do it right?” I should have said ‘better’, not ‘right’; I know that now. I’ve met some brilliant folks, too; just not as many.

The number of people that have spent ten thousand hours doing something exactly the way they were told without ever considering that there might be a better way is a little mind boggling. These people are not masters; yet a recent popular expression has them puffing out their chests as they add up the hours logged. They don’t know what it’s like to master something, or even think deeply on it; they know how to lose themselves in mindless repetition thinking someone else’s thought. That might well be the exact opposite of mastery.

Anyone who has ever come close to mastering anything knows that it takes more than just repetition. Those hours logged have to be hours where you show up completely. Mental focus must be learned for the sake of any worthwhile project, as does some level of inner organization. It requires study, consideration, practice and passion. It always comes back to the passion, of course; you can get good at something without being passionate about it, but it’s not likely that you’ll master it. Passion has you thinking about your thing all day, and dreaming of it at night. Passionate people don’t lay down that passion on the evenings or weekends. We aren’t looking to justify our non-productive moments; we’re looking to eliminate them.

The ten thousand hours come naturally when you’re passionate about something. I once wrote an article, for a series that never happened, that advised anyone wanting to write to bang out about a hundred thousand words before getting started on something serious. It’s a project that helps a writer find their voice in the privacy of a journal instead of halfway through their first story. It’s not quite ten thousand hours, unless you write pretty slow; but it’s a more deliberate and specific way to get started.

Some writers find teachers, or one special favorite; I don’t want to please teachers, I want to leave a legacy. My legacy. My teachers are the same things that serve as my favorite entertainment, and happen to be my passion in creating. Books can teach anything you want to learn, and show you how to learn it. Not only that, most of the really great teachers write books distilling their wisdom; you can learn nearly all of what they have to teach by buying the book for a few dollars, instead of going into debt to hang out with them. Hours logged in a classroom are not nearly as valuable as hours logged in doing and being; your best teacher is always your own deepest knowing, and it takes real work to tap into that.

Having different day jobs over the years helped me understand a lot about what it took to get things done. That post I mentioned earlier will show up as a bonus, somewhere in the next few days; next week we’ll talk about learning how to learn while earning your way in the world. It might sound boring, but I’ve learned a lot from day jobs. Let me help you save some of those valuable hours we’re counting up, or at least tell you how I did. A little learning becomes a need for more, as life gets better for the time spent on it.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,
J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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