What have you spent 10,000 hours doing?

I wrote a fan post to Malcolm Gladwell a few weeks ago after reading Blink, so it should be no surprise to any of you that I picked up another of his books, Outliers – this one about successful people and how they did not get that way alone.  As with Blink, this book was filled with much food for thought – and that is exactly why I am now officially a Malcolm Gladwell groupie. He looks at everything from the birth dates of leading hockey players to the rice patties of Southeast Asia to the garment district in New York City during the Depression to show that time and place had as much to do with success as a particular person’s individual skills.

What he’s NOT saying is that people like Bill Gates aren’t talented, hard-working and motivated. What he is saying is that things like where you live, who your parents are and what you spend your time doing count as much as individual effort.  Mr. Microsoft wasn’t just bright and skilled in math, he went to a school that had one of the earliest on-demand computers in the country, and virtually unlimited access to that computer where he could practice his programming skills.  Without that, he may have become Bill Gates, regular joe.

The part I remember most about Outliers is the 10,000 hours theory.  According to many different sources referencing many different skills, 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become a master at something – whether it be playing the violin, programming a computer or playing hockey.  Ever since I read that chapter, I’ve been thinking about those 10,000 hours.

While I was reading it, I immediately thought of what I’d spent my 10,000 hours on – reading! Now, of course, I always knew that the reason I was good at English and analyzing literature was because I spent so  much time reading, but this is ‘knowing’ in a different way.  If 10,000 hours of practice is the amount of time it takes to master a skill – well, I hit that a long time ago – before I got to college.  Obviously, I am an expert at reading because I love it – but I also had a big sister who taught me to read before kindergarten, and parents who encouraged reading, took me to the library when we couldn’t afford books, and never told me to put the book down and do something else.

I’m not here to make judgments, but I think – for some people at least – a re-framing of the definition of talent/expertise would be valuable.  How do you get to be a professional ball player? – 10,000 hours of practice. That is a finite – if rather large – goal a person can chip away at.  I find myself wanting to impress this knowledge upon my son somehow – not in a ‘what are you wasting your life on’ kind of way, but more of a ‘you can choose what you will be a master of – what is it that you will choose?’  And if what you want to be a master of is wasting time on the internet – well, at least you should be consciously choosing it!  I wouldn’t be surprised if web-searching wasn’t something you could be employed for in the future.  So maybe we should be less uptight about all that time our children waste on the weird things that interest them – those things could turn out to be something incredible if they are willing to put the time in.

It also puts new spin on those ‘mid-life’ career changes that used to be such a big deal (though increasingly, anyone who hasn’t changed careers 3 times by mid-life is an anachronism).  But if you hadn’t hit 10,000 hours on something by your early 20s (when you had to hit the workforce), you may well have done it by your mid-40s and ‘suddenly’ have a new skill to market.

Maybe I’m making more of this than there is, but, as you can see, Gladwell’s got me thinking in new and interesting ways.  And this is just one facet of a book full of insights like this!

Yes, I am a big fan of analysis and the human experience – why do you ask?  Pardon me, I must get back to working on my second 10,000 hours of reading – or is it my third?  Feel free to tell me what you spent your 10,000 on.

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