The 10,000 hour mark

Working on the Divine Beauty series in my studio.

I’m reading the book Outliers: the story of success by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s about what makes exceptional people exceptional. Gladwell makes a convincing case that genius has little to do with great success. He claims that one of the biggest factors determining achievement is the 10,000 hour rule. And it is a rule that no one escapes. It goes like this: people don’t become highly skilled at any discipline until they practice it for 10,000 hours. It takes that long to reach the excellence threshold in anything. It’s some kind of magic number that’s biologically programmed into us. That’s it. Not IQ, not talent. Of course Gladwell states that luck, circumstance, and reasonable intelligence are also major determining factors in high profile success—Jeff Koons or Bill Gates for examples—but exceptional accomplishment itself is all about the number 10,000.

This concurs with the conclusions of one of my favorite writers on the subject, Robert W. Weisberg, whose book Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius states that highly creative thought is no different than ordinary thought. Two things distinguish extremely creative people from others: tremendous depth of knowledge in their subject, and very, very hard work. Practicing something for 10,000 hours would seem to cover both.

This caused me to do some calculations, and I realized that I’m probably just now approaching 10,000 hours as an artist. My time in the studio was always limited by my day job and other obligations, and when you cut out time I spent stretching and priming canvas, making frames, cleaning up, and other tangential work, I actually think I’m just about at the magic threshold. Artists that immerse themselves in their field starting in college, probably reach the 10,000 hour mark much earlier. Or some who, like me, have other obligations might just peter out before the 10,000 mark. I’ve taken the slow but sure path with a house and a family and side interests. So I’m just getting there. Meaning, according to Gladwell, I am just approaching the highly accomplished level as an artist. This seems plausible. I’ve been aware of improved ability and added insight with each passing year, leading me to feel optimistic about the future.

I gave up doing stage magic years ago because I knew I could never spend the time to become a really great magician, and the same goes for other interests like science and Frisbee. I’ve invested time in many fields: illustration, various forms of performance, gardening, fencing, music, rationalism/skepticism, filmmaking, and creative and critical writing, and they all took time away from being an artist, though arguably they added to my overall breadth of knowledge. I probably hit the 10,000 mark as a teacher, but when you cut out all the bullshit that comes with the job, actual hours working at being a teacher are fewer, and by the time you are really great, the system generally puts a damper on your effectiveness. I probably have another 8000 hours to go as a writer. But as an artist, I believe I am just arriving now. Everything before was lead-up.