How many times have you heard the phrase, “practice makes perfect”?
Does it really?
What about talent and genius?
Is practice really all it takes?
When I was five, my family moved to a new neighbourhood. Unfortunately, a bully lived next door. I couldn’t go outside without having someone twice my size beat me up. To ensure that my teeth stayed in my mouth, I stayed in the house. I stayed in my room and I drew. I drew a lot. I would lock myself in there for hours at a time, where I would draw until one of the parents came up and got me; then they would make me stop for a bit and eat dinner. Afterwards, I would go back upstairs and draw some more. I did this until I was 15. That was when I discovered ‘QBASIC’ on the old IBM PS/2 386, and computer programming started to dominate my attention and free time for the next 3 years.
For 10 years, from the age of 5 to 15, I drew nearly everyday for about five hours.
300 days X 5 hours X 10 years = 15,000 hours of practice.
Fifteen thousand hours of drawing.
Wow. I honestly didn’t expect the number to be that high. That number reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, and the idea of 10 000 hours.
If you haven’t read Outliers, then you should go read Outliers.
This book looks at success from a very different angle than most other books on the subject. If you’ve ever read a book about a successful person, it usually goes something like this:
“I’m brilliant, I worked really hard, then I became successful”
How often do we stop and think, “But I know plenty of people who are brilliant, work hard, and aren’t successful”?
Outliers ignores all this. It focuses on the social conditions surrounding success. Success depends on opportunities, and opportunities depend on a combination of luck, preparation, and where you come from. The biggest idea in the book was probably the one about 10,000 hours. To be good, really good, outstandingly good at anything, you need to have put in 10,000 hours of practice.
Any difficult, creative, complicated task requires 10,000 hours of practice. If you look through history, all the really big, successful people started out with a little bit of luck that let them get started on something. Then with some more luck, they were able to keep on going and get in a ton of practice. The combination of luck and dedication creates a chain cumulative advantage that leads to that person being very, very good at something.
We all know the old saying, “practice makes perfect”. Now we know exactly how much practice it takes to make perfect: 10,000 hours.
Of course, there is more to it than that. Just doing something for 10,000 doesn’t mean that you will inevitability become a grand master at it. You need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That means 10,000 hours spent focused on learning how to do something better. Play a song faster, draw a line straighter. Don’t just do it a lot, do it to get better, and do it for 10,000 hours.
This whole idea seems kind of prescriptive; kind of convenient. Nature is messy, it can’t be a nice round, even number like 10,000! That’s too easy!
Remember that 15,000 hours of drawing I was gloating about earlier? That wasn’t always done with the intent of being better. Sometimes, I was just doing it for fun. I always wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but I didn’t know exactly what it took to be an artist. I wasn’t concerned with being better each time, I just loved making art, so I made as much of it as I could.
In high school, things changed. In high school, I finally found a teacher who would challenge me, and I started working to get better. I put down my pencils and picked up a paintbrush. It’s time to hit the reset button on the counter. I was starting over from scratch here, I was entering new territory, but it felt good.
I put in long hours, at least two a day, but often, it was closer to 12. But I only had art one semester each year. By the end of high school, I had probably accumulated just over 3,000 hours
6 hours a day X 110 days X 5 years = 3,300 hours.
My years in University might be more difficult to calculate. I began showing in commercial galleries on top of my regular school work load. For the first 3 years, I worked very, very hard. during summers, I worked a full time job, and a part time job, so I could only practice my art during the school year. During my thesis year, I had to spend so much time writing, I couldn’t paint very much. So I’m just going to guess 200 hours for it.
8 hours a day X 176 days X 3 years + 200 for year 4 = 4,424
So, my final year of education is coming to a close, graduation is in my sights, and I’m at 7724 hours.
Ha! I beat the system. I’m going to graduate, and I’m over 2,000 hours short!
After graduation, I finally had that piece of paper that says, “I’m an artists now that I’ve grown up!”. The life-long dream was now a reality, and in my first year off, I hit a rut so deep, I don’t know how I ever climbed out of it. Everything I did in late 2006 and 2007 really, really sucked. It was just a bad year for me. My sources of extrinsic motivation had dried up. Friends disappeared, the concept of deadlines vanished, commissions fell apart, paintings failed miserably, and my money ran out. I did almost nothing that year. probably less than 800 hours. It was a very lazy year for me. Let’s just round the number up to 8,500
Half way through 2007, I said “Aww….eff it, I’m going to have an adventure” (Yes, I actually did say ‘eff it’, I was on the phone with my Mother at the time. I still haven’t acquired the knack for successful profanity. I am working on it, but not when my Mom is around.) I closed down my studio, packed my bags and moved to Korea, where I teached kids to talk English good.
I hiked through the mountains, I wandered through the wonderful cities, and I picked up my pencils again. I picked up my watercolours. I took the urban landscape style I had developed during my thesis, and I started to express it in a new medium – graphite, ink and watercolours. I had to change certain things about my technique, I spent about 100 hours that year learning to combine my 15,000 hours of drawing with my 8,500 hours of painting. By the time I had figured out how to successfully depict my subject matter in this new medium, it was time to come home and pick up my acrylics again.
As soon as I got home, I got to work, pumping out a series of landscapes while the experience was still fresh in my mind. They rarely turned out the way I had wanted them to, but a bunch of them were good enough. These first few acrylics were a real struggle.
I worked on this series daily for 5 months.
8 hours a day X 150 days = 1200 hours.
I was depressed, I wasn’t able to get what I wanted. On New Year’s Day, I officially gave up on the landscapes and went back to my urban landscapes, the one style that really feels like my own. I painted a scene, and it worked. I painted another, and it worked even better. I painted yet another, and it didn’t work out quite as well, but it was still good enough. I painted yet another, and it worked. I kept on painting.
It was still the first month of 2009 at this point, and already, I had the beginnings of a body of work I could be proud of. The rut I had been stuck in since mid-2006 was finally over! When you’re riding a groove, the worst thing you can do is stop and get off, so I kept on riding the groove; I kept on working on that urban landscape series. I am still riding that same groove today, I am still working on my urban landscapes.
This might be very hard to properly describe in words, but I had always felt like painting was a bit of a fight, a bit of a struggle. It felt like a sort of wall existed between my body and the image in my mind, or between my mind and my tools. I had my materials, and I had an image in my mind. I wanted to turn these perfect materials in front of me into the perfect image that was in my head, but the only way I could get there was by using these clumsy hands and brushes. It was a constant fight to get them to work right. The brush would wiggle around, run dry in the wrong place, the bristles would spread out, clump together, or or flick when they weren’t supposed to, the paint would mix wrong, or my hand would shake; all these things got in the way of being able to create that image that I wanted to make.
Now here is the weird thing: during that rush of productivity back in January 2009, the wall disappeared. My materials started to work the way I wanted them too. The fight was over. Now, I can just put the paint on the canvas.
I didn’t put much though into this until recently. As I was re-reading part of Outliers, I got the crazy idea that I should count my hours and do the math.
That January was when I hit my 10,000 hours.