Friday, November 21, 2008


We learn writing early. We start with single words and solitary sentences in grade school, then move up to personal essays and research papers and the dreaded senior thesis. Along the way, some of us learn to love gleaning our teeming brains with pen and paper, and for us a goal emerges -- to write for a living. Some want to become novelists, entertaining others with our imaginings. Others dream of joining the ranks of journalists (who are ever on the cusp of world events) or memoirists (who can turn personal particulars into the universal) or poets (who revel in language’s beauty). This yearning tugs at us when we’re brewing coffee in the morning and snatching lunch between meetings at the office and brushing our teeth at day’s end. But for most, yearning is as far as it will go and even that eventually fades.

Why is this? Literacy is widespread, and writing has low barriers to entry. Why don’t more make the jump? Is it that the whims of a global economy have crippled publishers? That the rise of visual media have put people off of books and newspapers and the like? That there’s actually such a glut of talent that one can’t get noticed? Perhaps. But an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, in the November 14, 2008, edition of The Wall Street Journal made me consider another possibility. Excerpt:

At one point you suggest that the difference between a professional and a talented amateur is 10,000 hours of practice. How did this become the magic number?

A group of psychologists who study expertise looked at a variety of fields. There is a threshold of preparation for greatness. Nobody has been a chess grandmaster without having played for 10 years, or composed great classical music without having composed for 10 years. When classical musicians were asked when they felt they achieved a level of expertise, the answer was 10,000 hours. It's an empirically based finding that seems consistent across a number of different fields. It also helps you understand why opportunities are so important. An opportunity is basically a chance to practice.
Read the whole thing.

The math isn’t hard, even for a bibliophile such as myself. At eight hours a day and five days a week and fifty-two weeks a year, the soonest any of us could expect to become -- by Gladwell’s estimation -- professionals would be in half a decade. Most of us struggle to log a quarter of that. Perhaps despair at the enormity of the task, then, is what vanquishes budding writers. But that towering sum of time holds some encouragement, because we have a measure of control over it. I can’t prop up the credit markets or make people put down the remote or draw agents’ attention to me like iron filings to a magnet. But I can grit my teeth, duck my head and write.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


ollwen said...

Really interesting stuff. I'm not sure if it's encouraging or discouraging. I'm sure there are 'outliers' among us who break this rule either positively or negatively. Without the vanity of hoping for that though, this makes me wish I knew what I should be working towards.


Loren Eaton said...

I'm trying to think of it positively because I'm afraid that to do otherwise would break my will. I mean, that's a heckuva lot of time. But the principle seems more-or-less true.

Also, that comic is gold. And pretty representative of my one try attempt at a half pipe.