Monday, November 24, 2008

10,000 hours

I've been assigned to review Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, for City Journal. I'll post a link to the review as soon as it goes up on the City Journal website. Gladwell talks quite a bit about IQ, the Terman study, the case of Chris Langan, and so forth -- all topics which will no doubt be of interest to the Gifted Exchange audience, and which I can talk about more once the review has been published.

But one thing I do want to bring up, because it's so similar to Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated (which I'm also reviewing, this time for The American), and because it has such implications for gifted children, is the idea of long hours spent at deliberate practice. Both writers cite a figure: 10,000 hours. This is the minimum number of hours of practice needed for true expertise.

Both writers base this figure, in part, on a study of Berlin music students at the elite Academy of Music. Many years ago, researchers divided the students into three groups: the stars (those who might become world-class soloists), the good (perhaps playing in an orchestra) and those destined to become music teachers (sigh... the adage about teaching...). The researchers ran all sorts of data points and figured that the key distinguishing feature between the three groups was the number of hours they devoted each week to sustained practicing with the purpose of getting better. By age 20, the elite group had totaled 10,000 hours. The good group had totaled 8000, and the OK group 4000. The OK and the good groups really couldn't catch up at this point, because the elite group were practicing about as much as it is physically possible to practice (roughly 30 hours a week; they spent other hours taking classes and playing in groups and performing in addition to, you know, sleeping and eating).

The two writers throw in different examples of this in other fields. Gladwell postulates that Bill Gates got in about 10,000 hours of programming before starting Microsoft; Colvin figures that Mozart got in roughly that amount of music training, and Tiger Woods got in that amount of golf.

I have been thinking about this 10,000 hours figure a lot over the past few days for a few reasons. First, I think it's likely true -- the older I get, the more heartened I am by the fact that when I deliberately do something for many hours I do get better at it. I picked up running in 2004 and have run about 15-25 miles weekly since then, many times deliberately working on speed and strength; I am definitely faster and stronger than I was 4 years ago. I began singing with actual real choral instructors and constructive feedback in college and have put at least 2-3 hours into it weekly since then. I am definitely a better singer and better musician than I was in 1999. Of course, 2-3 hours a week (for singing) or 4 hours a week (for running) only gets you to 100-200 hours a year, or 1000-2000 hours over a decade. At that pace, I should reach operatic heights and a competitive running level when I am...75.

But I did the calculation on the treadmill yesterday and I am probably coming close to 10,000 solid hours of writing over the past decade. How could I not? I have, oh, about four novels I haven't done anything with, clocking in at 250,000 words. I have written roughly 4 non-fiction books (give me another 200,000 words). Throw in roughly 60 USA Today columns at 1000 words apiece, 30 months of writing the Only in America section of Reader's Digest (1000 words each time), six months of weekly 500 word Scientific American columns, 50,000 words in random other features, more blog posts than I care to count, and you can see where this is going. I have probably written close to 1,000,000 words since I went "pro" as it were. If my rate of publishable production is 100 words per hour, then I've put in the time. If my rate is better, than I haven't. It may be better, because even though I've definitely worked more than 20 hours per week for the past 10 years, I haven't necessarily been writing for all of them. I call people up and interview them, do research, etc. Those are different skills. Regardless, it's heartening to know that I'm in for a breakthrough one of these days.

Of course, if you count from much earlier in life, I may have already hit my "expert" level. I learned to read through a computer program my kindergarten used called "Writing to Read." I used to type little stories up and illustrate them. My entire sophomore year of high school, I wrote 2 4,000-word stories (roughly) each month in my bedroom at night. I wrote columns for my high school paper, then the Ball State Daily News, then the Daily Princetonian. When you love something, hours of work don't seem like a prison sentence. It feels more like being absolutely free.

Which brings us (finally!) back to the question of 10,000 hours and gifted education. The problem we currently have is that it is very, very difficult for gifted young people to build up those 10,000 hours before age 20, which is about when you need to seriously think about your professional career. If you start playing the piano at age 5, that gives you 15 years of practicing -- hard -- for more than 13 hours each week. That's about 2 hours every single day. Even if you figure a more intense schedule in the later years, that's still a lot to ask of a 6-year-old when you add it on top of regular school. This is, of course, the reason many elite musicians (and athletes and actors) are homeschooled or have some sort of alternative school. You have to get your hours in.

You also have to get your hours in with academics. Kids who like math do problems at night, and on weekends in addition to their school hours. But should a kid who really, really loves math have to spend hours doing English literature homework, making history timelines and so forth?

I don't know. In American education, we don't like the idea of cutting off options. You might change your mind about what you want to be when you grow up. So we don't like to have kids specialize. The problem with that philosophy is that world class performance requires a high level of focus. By leaving all options open, you in fact leave no options open.

And that's too bad, because there's a lot of undeveloped talent floating around. It is the rare school that lets a young writer do her academic work in the morning and spend the afternoon writing and checking in with a writing teacher or coach regularly to gauge her progress. We could produce more outliers. It's just that we choose not to. I personally think that's too bad. Gifted education should focus far more on talent development than on 90 minutes of pull-out per week. At 90 minutes per week, it will take you 133 years (and that's counting summers) to be an expert at anything.


Jeremy said...

Wow, great, great post -- I found myself nodding along throughout. I had heard that 10,000 hours figure a few years ago too, and I've thought of it often. In fact, I was pondering it on Saturday night, when my daughter and I were at the local symphony watching her violin teacher perform with the orchestra. I've been learning violin along with Ivy, and I enjoy it quite a bit more than she does!

Watching the professional musicians playing that beautiful music made me wonder what I'd have to do to be able to learn to play like them. Out of reach for a middle-aged beginner, right? But then I wondered about seven-year-old Ivy sitting next to me -- we homeschool, giving her the time to practice something she was passionate about. I doubt it will be violin, although she has shown some early talent for it. It's hard enough to get her to practice 15 minutes every day, never mind hours.

And I wonder too about specializing too much, too soon. I think it's a legitimate concern when you see the prodigy children with no life outside of their specialty. Mozart's pushy father is the archetype, methinks. I don't want to be that father, but it's hard to know when to push and when to back off, especially when your child is really good at something.

Kevin said...

You began with the assumption that being a specialist should be a major goal. I think we also need (and in larger numbers) people who are competent at a large number of things, even if they don't reach the very top in any. We need a *lot* of music teachers, but not many soloists for top-tier orchestras.

The outlier positions not only require 10,000 hours of work, they also require some luck in getting the rare positions that pay for such narrow specialization. Those who strive for the top, closing off other options, and don't make it are often in worse shape than those who aim for a broader goal.

Jon Liechty said...

This doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It's quite possible (it happened to me) to give a child the opportunity to spend additional time doing something, and adjust up or down according to how the child responds.

It's good to have some numbers to go by, however, because it can be very tough for people in the arts to evaluate their position objectively. Better answers to questions such as, "How am I doing now?", "How well do I want to do?", and "What would it take for me to get there?" will at least help people feel comfortable with wherever they arrive. Once you have an idea of the true cost, it is much easier to decide if you're willing to pay it.

nbosch said...

I heard Christopher Paolini, the author of Eragon, Eldest and Brisingr, speak several years ago. He was 15 when he wrote Eragon (a gifted kid favorite) and he thanked his parents for the gift of time. I've thought a lot about that---being homeschooled was probably the only way he could have written an 800 page book at 15. (...and he's already earned a gazillion dollars!!)