Saturday, December 4, 2010

Let Me Harden Myself With Ten Thousand Hours Of Labor

And finally, done! Every issue of Swill must pay obeisance to the Insect God.

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.


Anonymous said...

Must post reaction that actually supports what you say, and clarifies what I do, but have to leave for lunch.

Don't hold your breath, but it is coming. I'm in your responses, thinking deep thoughts.


Anonymous said...

All right, Sean. I'm back.

I get the feeling that when Baldwin suggests expertise, he doesn't mean what you do. I don't think he analyzes talent as analogous to expertise. I think he sees expertise as a way to develop talent to genius.

Bryon and I were talking about these very things at the dinner table last night.

The first is this: diligence with nothing else doesn't necessarily produce master craft. With my handy calculator, I figured that Bryon has been teaching science for 39,450 hours. He is a very good teacher. However, there was a physics teacher who taught for around 35 years at his school who was a dreadful teacher, and Mr. Physics, by the expertise rule, should have been a better teacher. He wasn't. Frankly, he stank, and the kids avoided his classes.

I don't know enough about Mr. Physics back when he was a beginning teacher, but I have seen a lot of mediocre teachers remain mediocre. I've seen a lot of people who want to paint, write, act, and so forth who don't have what I would label, for want of a better word, the "it" factor. I suppose in the common lexicon, it might be called talent.

This year, I hired a new guy. I hired him because I watched him teach when he was a young pup working for us as an adjunct. At that time, he'd had about five years of teaching under his belt, but that class was eating out of his hands. He's better now that he's had another 4 years of teaching, but he started out pretty good.

Clearly, practice isn't the only thing. Practice can increase your skill, your expertise, and your ability. It can't make you a genius on its own. There isn't that kind of relationship. I've always been a great teacher. I've been a pretty good writer. In this lifetime, I will never run marathons. I am the slowest person I know, even when I'm in shape. Even if I ran for 10,000 hours, besides needing knee surgery, I'd be no Olympian.

If you have any talent, you kind of know when something isn't working, and you're, in the immortal words of Ferret Steinmetz, "polishing the turd."

Anonymous said...

Part II

Next up is the idea of the sentence. 10 years to life? I agree. Some people look at that set of hours, and instead of seeing a challenge, they see a burden. I'm totally with you. I can't imagine spending 10K hours at something I didn't like at all.

Like you, I'm also not sure what would constitute practicing writing. For me, I've decided it's brainstorming, outlining, researching and drafting. The whole physical enchilada. I could honestly say that reading some books counts, especially if the books have made me want to write a particular thing.

So why you'd want to spend 10,000 hours on something you didn't like is beyond my scope. That's just weird.


As to the artistic lifestyle, well, yeah. Even if you don't achieve what you want to achieve, and you want to create, if it gives you satisfaction and pleasure, it's worth doing, even if you never become the World's Greatest Author (TM).

To quote a very wise writer,

"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."

Whoever said this, probably has the right of it. Wait, that was you, wasn't it?

There are no formulas and no guarantees. All we can do is do what makes us happy, and do the best we can. I like to think that I stand a chance of achieving more with practice, because I have some talent in the first place.

However, regardless of the outcome, the time commitment means I'm giving it the best shot that I can, combining talent and practice. For me, that should make me happy. It's also harder for me to find the energy to find the time to do the thing that I love with that full time job commitment. I find for me putting my terms into something concrete and measurable actually helps. This would be no good unless you like counting beans.

Expertise and genius and success. VERY slippery and not at all easy to dissect.

Much obliged to you for bringing these things up. Keeps my journal from sounding too self-helpy, which I definitely do not want.


Anonymous said...

And of course, I didn't mean Baldwin. I meant Gladwell. Because the brain is a fragile vessel.


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