Saturday, December 4, 2010
Let Me Harden Myself With Ten Thousand Hours Of Labor
And once again, a comment on someone else's blog ran wild, and turned into a post. Catherine Schaff-Stump wrote about that book on expertise that's got everyone all het up, and I figured that if I was going to accuse a pal of serf mentality I shouldn't do it on her turf. I'll do it here, where I'm familiar with the escape routes and can keep a table between us until I get a chance to explain myself.
I should read this book. All I know about it is what I've heard or read in other's discussions. So really, I'm not talking about the book. I'm talking about the reactions to it that I've seen in a number of creators of my acquaintance.
But there are a few things I wonder about. The premise under discussion is that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert in any given skill. I get the impression that what's meant by 'expert' is a world-class, top-grade, unquestionably significant and accomplished talent.
I've seen a common reaction to the ten-thousand hour paradigm. People see it as a sentence. They are crushed, then they nobly lift the burden up and accept it as part of their load.
Because the idea that this is something that must be done also implies that it's something that can be done. It takes a question that seems unfathomable -- how can I achieve greatness? -- and gives a straightforward numerical answer that is just barely on the acceptable side of impossible. Practice for ten thousand hours, and if you still suck, get back to me. We'll work something out.
Don't get me wrong. I am the poster child for compulsive woodshedding, and I think it's paid off. If you want to be good, you need to put the time in. And I think that a cold, sober look at the amount of time that dedicated professionals put in on their work is a damned fine thing.
But there are a few reactions that I've been developing as I've seen the ten-thousand hours join the hundredth fucking monkey and Catch-22 as part of the law of the jungle.
First off, it implies that there is a distinct point at which one says, "Yep. There it is." Ones skill is undeveloped, then ten thousand hours later it's in full bloom.
My favorite band is the Ramones.
By this I do not mean, "Craft counts for nothing." What I mean is, is that lack of expertise is not always a barrier to achievement. I don't think the world would be a better place if Blitzkrieg Bop had an interesting chord progression and some kinda life to the beat. Which is what would have happened if the Ramones had put in their ten thousand hours before they started working.
So that's the first point. Don't think of what you do as practice unless you are doing a deliberate exercise in order to develop some facet of your skill. If you are working on something that means something to you, you are not practicing.
Next is the ten-thousand hour figure itself. Let me tell you something. Practice is not as clear-cut as it seems. Are you doing the same routine every day, or are you challenging yourself? And what counts as practice? Maybe you spend two hours a day writing, but how many hours a day are you spending thinking about your work, or even just consciously using language? When my observational drawing skills are strong, I can draw without drawing -- I look at a branch and count the leaves, that kind of thing.
That gray area in practice, where unavoidable moments in life are turned to the advantage of art, is crucial. Those are the moments when art is not something you make yourself do, or allow yourself to do. Those are the moments when the artistic process is part of your process. When you've fully assimilated your creativity.
When your art is fully part of your life, everything contributes toward it. It becomes impossible to estimate practice time, because it is all practice. It isn't a chore or an effort, because if it is? You won't do it.
When I first heard about the ten thousand hours, it totally rocked my John Henry. I did a little math and felt better about myself.
In other words, I reacted the way Catherine did. Lots of people have reacted this way. One at a time, each is the result of an individual struggling with questions of dedication and achievement. Seen en mass, I find myself reminded of that Maoist-era toe-tapper, Let Me Go To The Mountain, Mother, And Harden Myself With Physical Labor.
I am not criticizing the concept of practice here. But I have noticed not just in myself, but in most of the serious beginning writers I know, a sense of stern duty, of feeling that we must steel ourselves for the rigors to come. Writing these days feels like a polar expedition, where we expect to lose a finger or nose to frostbite in the process of starving to death while surrounded by bears.
This sense of eternally plowing under gray skies (while wearing thick damp pants that chafe) is not an essential element of art. The grim satisfaction of dedication is a useful tool, but I worry that it has grown too important to too many of us.
Here is the secret of the ten thousand hours. You do not get through ten thousand hours of practice through grim dedication. Okay, you can -- but your work will reflect that grim dedication.
If you are one of the people who is actually going to get ten thousand hours of practice in, most of those ten thousand hours will be spent enjoying yourself. Yes, there are tedious practices and chores and so on, but give me a break.
For those of us who like to spend our evenings carving crude pitchforks with which to maintain our dungheaps, this is a bitter pill indeed. When you embrace the labor of art, you embrace the pleasure of that labor -- which is actually play. The moments when you are engaged, when you are loving what you are doing -- those are the moments when you are learning.
Ten thousand hours isn't a sentence or a guarantee. It seems to be an estimate of how much time people have spent doing something they love by the time they get noticed. And a lot of people do good, interesting work long before they clock in those hours. And a lot of people put in more effort than that without advancing. Practice is necessary, but it can only take you as far as you can go.
Bummer, huh? Once again, quantification proves of more apparent than actual use.