Author: Evans, Bill

10,000 hours. Really?

Sooner or later, often around the breakfast table at a music camp, conversation will turn to “that 10,000-Hour Rule thing.” What’s that? In his 2008 best seller “Outliers,” journalist Malcolm Gladwell, drawing on research from psychologist Anders Ericsson, supposedly makes the claim that the key to success and mastery in any field, including music, is to engage in this task for 10,000 hours.

I know what you’re thinking. “10,000 hours?” you ask. “Wait a minute…so if I practice one hour a day, every day of the year, you’re telling me that I won’t become proficient at playing bluegrass for…27.173913 years?”
Relax a minute! No, I’m not telling you this and I don’t think Malcolm Gladwell is saying this either (but I am highly impressed by your math skills and I’m really glad that you’re finding one hour a day to practice!). A closer reading of Outliers paints a more nuanced picture of the real significance of the 10,000-Hour rule.

Gladwell uses as his case studies Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the Beatles, individuals who obviously have truly excelled at their craft. Gladwell does a bit of his own math and determined that many of us reach the 10,000-hour goal in our own professional lives after working 20 hours a week for 10 years. This explains why an experienced doctor, lawyer, teacher, social worker or you-name-it (um, banjo teacher?), is probably more skilled or knowledgeable at their respective professions than a newcomer to the field. Ultimately, we become what we do, right?

“Okay,” you then say, “but I don’t have 20 hours a week to practice.” Calm down my friend! There’s more good news here. What Ericsson and Gladwell are seeking to explain is not how we learn to play an instrument or sing well but they are searching for common elements in the biographies of those individuals who have literally changed the course of human history.

They are not saying that unless we have 10,000 hours to invest, we will never become proficient. But they are saying that if you look at the lives of Bill Gates and the Beatles (and I’ll add from my own personal experience, folks like Sonny Osborne, Jens Kruger and Bela Fleck), a common thread in these lives is that so-called genius (or, when it comes to music, “talent”) is not the only or even the most important thing when it comes to determining a person’s success. In the case of Bill Gates, it was his access to a computer at a time when they were not commonplace, that helped him to succeed. And in the case of the Beatles, it was the 10,000 hours invested in performing six to eight hours a day for four years in the sweaty clubs of Hamburg, Germany. When I interviewed Bela Fleck for the first time many years ago, I found him on his front porch, practicing. Jens Kruger practices eight hours a day, every day that he can – even today.

Most of us aren’t interested in changing the course of bluegrass music history. We just want to play well and have a great time making music in the company of friends and loved ones. Luckily, it’s possible to experience this joy without putting in those 10,000 hours! Simply find time in your own schedule to play, don’t compare yourself with others, set goals that are realistic for you and go for it!

You’ll get there and in much less time than 27.173913 years.

All the best,

Bill Evans
Posted:  3/24/2012

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