Everyone has gone on and on about the “10,000 Hour Rule” from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.
Everyone is under the mistaken impression that if they only apply themselves for ten thousand hours, they will achieve mastery or their goal.
People forget something else Gladwell wrote that thoroughly shoots down that facile, misleading, and dangerous notion.
It’s titled Late Bloomers and the entire text is available here.
Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.
Now that sounds as if what’s going on is a person running through those ten thousand hours of “deliberate practice.”
But that’s just not so.
Let’s say it’s true that ten thousand hours can make someone proficient at some skill.
What it does not guarantee is being an original.
The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.
Boldfaced emphasis added by me.
In other words, Cézanne was trying to bring to life what only he as Cézanne could see.
Writer Jonathan Safran Foer, quoted in that piece, understood exactly what it meant:
It was clear that he had no understanding of how being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an original?”
Boldfaced emphasis added by me.
In the movie version of The Horse’s Mouth, this is illustrated perfectly after artist Gulley Jimson finishes what he expected would be his masterpiece. In the end, instead of the exaltation of release and victory, he is only disappointed:
Not what I meant. Not the vision I had. Why doesn’t it fit —
like it does in the mind?
Aside from prodigies or those who have a latent talent that just needs to be finally unleashed, ten thousand hours might get you somewhere — but not where you want to go.
Once again I’ll turn to Raymond Chandler as an example. During his lifetime, his work was dismissed and ignored by critics. Others who were also proficient at writing got the accolades in newspapers and journals and the money that goes along with it.
Yet every single best-selling writer from Chandler’s time has been forgotten and their work is no longer in print.
Chandler’s work survives and is immortal because it’s the product of an artist, not just of anyone who can string words together with a typewriter and appeal to a snooty clique of critics. Chandler’s work is what only Chandler could produce. It is an original, never existing before he created it.
So, those of you out there who are flailing, stuck in a wasteland of frustration with no escape yet in sight, stop worrying and keep going.
What lasts isn’t just anything.
What lasts is the creation of an artist.
Ignore the minutes, hours, weeks, months, years.
Just keep going and you’ll get there.