Ten Thousand Hours

Ten thousand hours. No I’m not talking about how long it took to drive home from Asheville the Sunday after Thanksgiving, although the traffic was pretty slow on part of the route.

But last weekend my wife Maggie and I did go to Asheville. And after a big lunch at an Indian restaurant with the artist David Barison, the three of us went to browse books at the Barnes and Noble bookstore. We each found some reading material and sat down together to read and sip some coffee.

I was thumbing through a Photoshop magazine when Maggie, who was reading through a new book by Malcom Gladwell, said, “Listen to this:

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, “this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

This is true even of people we think of as prodigies. Mozart, for example, famously started writing music at six. But, the psychologist Michael Howe writes in his book Genius Explained, by the standards of mature composers Mozart’s early works are not outstanding. The earliest pieces were all probably written down by his father, and perhaps improved in the process. Many of Wolfgang’s childhood compositions, such as the first seven of his concertos for piano and orchestra, are largely arrangements of works by other composers. Of those concertos that contain only music original to Mozart, the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No9 K271) was not composed until he was 21: by that time Mozart had already been composing concertos for 10 years.

To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about 10 years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fischer got to that elite level in less than that time: it took him nine years.) And what’s 10 years? Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice.”

To some, this could be depressing; to others, a magic formula of success. For instance, I asked Maggie and David if it is possible for me to daily put in six hours of study and practice of Photoshop (something I have been doing lately) for five years, or three hours a day for 10 years, and become a world-class expert on Photoshop?

Our friend David, who used to teach classical guitar at the University of North Carolina, said he didn’t think 10,000 hours was sufficient. He told us of a conversation he had with someone who really knew what it took to become world-class: the legendary ballet teacher, Margaret Craske. Miss Craske taught at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, Juilliard, and the Manhattan School of Dance. Her distinguished students included Melissa Hayden, Hugh Laing, Nora Kaye, Carmen Mathe, Paul Taylor and Sallie Wilson.

Here is what Miss Craske shared with David: “It takes eight years to learn how to be a student. It then takes another eight years of being a student to learn the technique; and then again another eight years of learning to use the technique to become an artist.”

That was sobering. Eight years just to learn how to be a student! I guess that is how long it takes to make the ego subservient to the teacher, to allow oneself to truly be open to being molded by the teacher’s vision.

And then begins the quest of learning the technique. It’s one thing to know how to type; it’s another to type a novel. The last phase I suppose is the process of getting the “self” out of the way and letting the Higher Self flow through the art.

An interesting point about Margaret Craske is that her own mastery and fame as a ballet teacher went to a whole new level after she left the world of ballet in London for a period of seven years to live under austere conditions at an ashram in India under the tutelage of Meher Baba. She was there from 1939 to 1946. Life there outwardly had nothing to do with ballet, but one can suppose she learned volumes about the teacher-student relationship.

And it was after those seven years that Meher Baba indicated to Margaret that he wished her to go to America and teach ballet. She expressed surprise and explained that it was difficult to travel to America then, and that all of her contacts in ballet were in London. But Meher Baba said, “You must go; I have made you my link in America.”

So after a brief say in London, she went to America. And before she arrived in America, she already had a job with the American Ballet Theater as the company’s ballet mistress and teacher.

Anyway, whether it is 10 years or 24 years described by Margaret Craske, the bottom line is, it takes a lot of work to rise to the top of your field, to be distinguished as someone who is truly great. But in our society of instant gratification, too many of us give up on our dreams prematurely.

When I was in high school, I was voted “Most Talented” because of my accomplishments in music. But I wasn’t any more talented than anyone else.I just put a lot more time into my music than anyone else. Why? Because I enjoyed it.

In college, I was a music major at a big time music school. There, other students put in more time into their music than I did. Suddenly I wasn’t seen as so talented. Average at best. Eventually I dropped out of the music scene. I changed my major even though I got straight A’s from my saxophone teacher. What happened?

I guess I didn’t love music enough to put in the four, five, or six hours a day of practice. Either that or I got discouraged, not realizing that I needed to put in four, five, or six hours a day, and for many, many years. I guess I never learned how to be a student. Perhaps the most important talent is determination, resolution and sincerity of purpose.

If I knew everything would turn out perfectly after 10,000 hours, my life would have taken a different course. I guess I just wanted results too quickly.

This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, The Outliers. In the book, Gladwell (the author of The Tipping Point) goes into in-depth profiles of some very, very successful people, and how they all put in the required time of 10,000 hours. You will read about Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs of Apple. You will read about the Beatles. The common denominator: hours and hours of work, late into the night, when most people would rather be in bed.

But we are not talking about just being good at something. The Gladwell premise of 10,000 hours seems to be the magic number in becoming world-class. And as he states, “In other words, a key part of what it means to be talented is being able to practice for hours and hours – to the point where it is really hard to know where “natural ability” stops and the simple willingness to work hard begins.

I guess you could say it amounts to a willingness to die to an old way of living so that a new and more infinite way of living can be born. This can only happen when you are following the adage of Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss.”

It’s a process of surrendering what we are for what we might become.

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  1. Carol
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this post Greg. Wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson who said genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration?

    And I think it was Henry Ford who said, if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.

    People often say to me, you’re so lucky that you can draw. I just chuckle because I’ve been practicing all my life and I’m still practicing.

    However now my new effort in the last few years is on remembering God and God’s qualities in order to take me to a much higher level than I had ever dreamed possible before.

  2. Posted October 3, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article, Greg. I’m curious, is David Barison still around somewhere? I studied with him as a teenager in Chapel Hill, and have always wondered what he’s been up to.

  3. Gregory Allen Butler
    Posted October 4, 2009 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    He lives just outside Asheville, in a town called Old Fort (just east of Black Mountain). He’s in Myrtle Beach right now, having an exhibit of his paintings of Meher Baba. I just bought one. He has a website, DavidBarison.com.

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