Finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers the other day, which includes the famous “it takes 10,000 hours to be super awesome at something”meme that tore through the universe at top speed a while ago. The book itself is insanely repetitive in the way that those kinds of books are, but the message inside it still fairly convincing and “the 10,000″ is by far the catchiest moment.
And so naturally, if you’re at all like me, you think about what you might have put 10,000 hours of work into over your life – what are you a genius at, you wonder. And so naturally, if you’re at all like me, you realise that it’s nothing. I can safely say I have not put 10,000 hours into any particular skill whatsoever. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of us are in that situation, in fact.
But then you start feeling a bit hard done by. Now that there’s this hard-edged quantification of potential greatness out there you find that you want it. And so perhaps you cast around for a way to make it true. Which is, in fact, not hard at all. If nothing else, we’ve all spent 10,000 hours (and then some!) living in our own skins. We’re geniuses at being ourselves.
Shame that’s not all that much of a saleable or leveragable talent.
So, fine, but we can move on a little farther and into something with actual importance. I have not spent 10,000 hours of my life drawing, or 10,000 hours writing fiction, or 10,000 making video games. That’s a shame, but it’s a very narrow way of looking at this idea of developing expertise and skill through hard work – as if it could only apply to some highly individuated element of life that can be captured in a single verb: programming, singing, running. Rather than that, in this day and age it’s far more likely that we tend to combine a number of abilities that we do a lot, more like weird compound verbs: drawing-designing-writing-programming, say. And once we compound the verbs, we might say that we also compound the hours, and perhaps we creep ever closer to characterising something that we have spent 10,000 hours working on, even if it wasn’t as intentional or clear as the violin, say.
My point, then, is that we shouldn’t hang our heads in the face of The 10,000, but can rather ask ourselves “what is my 10,000 hours compound thing?”, or “what is it that I’ve been working towards all this time, without necessarily even knowing it?” That’s a valuable question to be able to answer because it’s rather similar to those less practical sounding exhortations to “find what you love and do it” and so on. Instead, perhaps it could be “work out what you’ve been practising all this time”.
Although it’s (very) early days with making video games, I might as well come out and say that there’s a part of me that thinks each day that I sit down to work on one, “yes! This is what I’ve been practising for!” For very substantial parts of my life I’ve been a writing-drawing-programming-designing-collaging kind of person. And it seems to me that at least one thing that that leads to is an ability to put together video games
In short, perhaps the 10,000 hours should be working for us, rather than the other way around.