10,000 Hours For Expertise, Maybe, But Not Artistry

Everyone has gone on and on about the “10,000 Hour Rule” from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.

Gladwell was inspired to write that portion of his book based on original research that by itself is an entire book called Talent is Overrated. Which is summarized in this CNN-Money article.

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.

Again, Gladwell:

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.


Filed under Writing

6 responses to “10,000 Hours For Expertise, Maybe, But Not Artistry

  1. I could not agree more. I’m not a believer in the 10,000 hour theory. All the practice in the world, all the hours in the history of time itself, will not make me into a theoretical mathematician. Or another Amadeus Mozart.
    After 10,000 hours of practice, I might be able to put together a cabinet from IKEA, but that’s about it.

  2. Excellent and very true. Keeping on is the key. Don’t stop. And in today’s world it’s even harder, a world full of vapid celebrities…but they’ll all be breakfasting in the ruins soon when copyright goes into meltdown. And in the new world that comes out of it new voices of all ages will be singing loud and clear…true artists will come through.

  3. Consider also – The Duke of Wellington Effect. Wellington went to India as a gifted young man but distinguished mostly by his family connections. Those connections gave him opportunities in his chosen career that no other young men got. He fought and he learned and, at his peak, was an immensely distinguished and capable individual.

    But not the individual he would have been without those opportunities. A young writer who is cherished and trained by good editors should be a better writer than the same person locked in her home office, writing competent ebooks that hardly anyone reads… (Guilty as charged, Your Honour…)

  4. Geoff

    10,000 hours of practice and you can do ANYTHING!!! Unless someone was born with more innate talent than you and can get there in 100 hours of practice…wait, does that make me racist to say people can be born with different abilities?


  5. Stephen

    The study never claimed anyone could do anything with 10000 hours of practice and I would argue that you have missed the point. Will it make a composer the second coming of Mozart, no, and no one ever said it would. Will it likely mean that an aspiring composer, diligently honing his or her craft on a constant basis becoming a highly respected and accomplished composer, most likely yes.

    One thing you are missing is that those who push constantly for a goal for this period of time almost always do have an aptitude for the object of the pursuit and do master it and are eventually considered very accomplished by others and themselves. People striving for perfection for a very long sustained time generally do attain a large degree of success and those that appear to do so effortlessly seldom had as little time in as it first appeared.

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