Friday, November 21, 2008

A Matter of Time

I ran into this article in the Guardian on-line, thanks to Erin of A Dress A Day (excellent site for anyone interested in sewing).

It's a summation of the notions in a new book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers: The Story of Success. It was so fascinating that the book went on my Amazon wishlist before I'd even finished reading the article.

The summary of the summary would be essentially: there is no such thing as inherent genius. There are bright people, certainly, and talented people, but what makes a genius is opportunity, perseverance, and time - 10,000 hours of time, to be precise. And all of it boils down to that time.

The opportunity is what allows somebody to spend 10,000 hours perfecting a skill - that's not a trivial amount of time. Working eight hours a day, five days a week - I.e. making your desired skill your full time job - it would still take five years to put in 10,000 hours. And how many of us are truly working at improvement every minute for a whole work day, even if we're lucky enough to be making a living at our skill? A would-be designer working as a dressmaker or a writer actually having a day-job that requires writing would generally be considered exceptionally fortunate. Most genius comes from middle and upper classes, simply because people lower down the economic ladder don't have that kind of time to devote to perfecting skills - they're too busy keeping afloat.

Perseverance is the will and desire to keep pushing at your desired skill, to keep working at it and loving working at it for years.

Both of which add up to - more time spent learning, perfecting, and pushing the limits of your skill.

Apparently the thresholds run as follows: if you want to be better than average - but no great shakes - you need to spend about 4,000 hours perfecting your skill. For really good - but not genius - about 8,000. For genius - 10,000 and up.

This would jive with my experience of my skill levels in various things, thus far. My one, true, genius-level skill, would be my reading ability. I read fast, voraciously, and continuously. Hard reading material doesn't slow me down much - and I retain what I read, often to the point of being able to tell you position on a page for a given bit of information.

Timewise? Well, I learned to read independently somewhere between two and three. I puttered around in children's books until I hit five years old. I can still remember the day, a few days after the end of kindergarten, when I was bored silly. I was past the children's books and board books. I had read all the intermediate books we had (not many) to death , and Mom and Dad's books were still beyond me. I was kicking around the house, desperate for something to read, and my eyes lit on this row of blue hardback books in the den, just to the right of the fireplace. These were books my brothers read, and maybe, just maybe they weren't beyond me? So I pulled one down and looked. It was a Hardy Boys book, and it had pictures - not many, about six for the whole book, but enough to convince me it wasn't a scary adult book. So I took it off and read it. It took me a few hours, but I liked the story, and went straight into the next one.

Long story short - I read the entire set of Hardy Boys that my brothers possessed at that time (32 plus the dectectives handbook, and two random Nancy Drew books) in the summer between kindergarten and first grade. By the end of the summer it was taking me less than two hours to make it through a book, and I never looked back. In fourth grade at Christmas, my eldest brother gave me some Fantasy for Christmas (Dragonsong, Night Mare, and Ogre, Ogre). By middle school I was reading three or four hours a day every day - more on weekends. On one notable occassion, I killed off the entire Lord of the Rings set, plus The Hobbit in one 27 hour reading marathon. On another I checked 27 horticulture books out of the library on a Friday, and returned them, read, on Monday after school - though this was a bit of a cheat, since the material was often very similar book-to-book.

So I put in those 10,000 hours reading and then some. Small wonder I'm a bibliovore.

Singing on the other hand, I probably log in at the 4,000-6,000 mark - and indeed, I'm a good , strong singer. I stand out a mile in the average church choir - but I'm not even professional performer level, let alone a genius at it. And these days I don't push my skills singing. I just sing at the level I am and enjoy it - so I doubt the time I spend now accrues.

Which brings me to my current most desired skills - karate and writing, which is what I've been pondering since these links came my way. Here, I'm still short of even the 4,000 hour better-than-average range. My best figuring would put me at about 1,000 hours total practice in karate - perhaps bolstered somewhat by the sheer amount of time I spend visualizing and reading and thinking about karate. Still a long way to go. Years, most likely. Likewise for writing, where I come in slightly higher - but not very much - perhaps 2,000 hours.

Which is followed by the next thought - do I want these skills badly enough to put in the 10,000 hours required? Or, presuming I persist in both these pursuits over the years, how many years is it going to take me?

Writing seems more doable - more related to reading, perhaps. I can see myself spending multiple hours a day, every day, writing - even if that's a rarity right now (well, not right now, it is NaNo month, after all). I have trouble seeing myself putting in that kind of daily effort into karate - daily practice, yes, but not hours and hours of it.

On the other hand, it wasn't all that many years ago, I couldn't see myself doing karate at all. Only time will tell.


Perky Nihilist said...

This has to be one of the most fascinating blog posts I've ever read. Do you mind if I link to it in my blog?

I too am at a very high level of reading but little else. My cooking skills have certainly improved in the last four years since we went unprocessed but I'm practically starting from scratch being vegan.

Crafts... I spend an average of two hours a day. I think that could add up eventually.

wh44 said...

Definitely an interesting topic. I easily qualify for the 10,000 hours for programming, but I was behind the first wave - born in 1961. I'm not sure if I qualify for the reading - I do read a lot, but I'm not striving to better my reading, just reading because I want to enjoy it or learn something.

You should post or link this at All Beliefs, too.

Perpetual Beginner said...

Go ahead, Nicole - I'd be flattered to be linked in your blog.

Based on what I've seen of your craft work, I think your 2 hours a day is definitely adding up.

Bill - I think I will post this in allbeliefs. I'd be interested to see what the people there think of it. It's definitely a step away from the myth of the inherent genius who just knows stuff.

My impression of the difference between my reading and yours would be that I kept pushing my reading level hard for a longer time. I think I got used to tackling stuff that was "too hard" for me, and just kept going until I couldn't find anything too hard any more.

wh44 said...

I don't have a problem reading hard stuff - I haven't ever run across something too difficult to read. Heck, I even do better at reading German legalese than most Germans. But my speed is way slower than yours - it is only average or slightly above. When a novel really fascinates me, I'll be up all night reading it and finish about when the sun comes up. If you start at 8:00 pm, you'll be finished well before midnight.