10,000 Hours

This is the face of 10,000 hours of computer programming.

I’ve talked before about how terrible I am when it comes to reading – last year I read one book, and so far this year I’ve been on track to read zero books. To put that another way, so far this year I’ve read the same number of books as a 9 year old girl in rural Pakistan. When you think about it, that’s kind of impressive – just as Malala Yousafzai was an inspiration to girls everywhere for pursuing literacy in the face of hash religious opposition, I’m sort of an inspiration to lazy douchebags everywhere for resisting literacy in a city full of bookstores and libraries.

Last week, though, I decided that maybe I should make some effort to not squander 16-odd years of education, so when I found myself in the vicinity of a Barnes and Noble I went in and picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s nonfiction book Outliers, which I vaguely understood to be about numbers or some shit like that. After a week of reading, I think a better title for the book would be, Holy Fucking Shit Is That True? And Other Stories Of How Malcolm Gladwell Is Smarter Than You And Everyone You’ve Ever Met.

The main gist of the book is that, in fact, you really didn’t build that – at least, not on your own. As Gladwell explains, the reason that some people are successful isn’t strictly that they’re smart – it’s that they’re smart enough and happened to have been born at the right time.

For example, all the computer revolution billionaires were born between 1952 and 1956 into rich families with access to early computer programming classes, allowing them to be programming masters in the 1970s when personal computing began to take shape. Nine of the richest people in human history were Americans born in the 1830s, which allowed them to be experienced businessmen in 1870s when our economy began to explode. I could give you shitty, condensed examples all day, or you could go read the book.

The part that really captivated me, though, was a chapter in which Gladwell explains that studies show the only reason anyone has ever been a master at something is because they put in 10,000 hours of practice at it. The symphonies Mozart wrote as a child weren’t particularly good or original, but they were practice – so by the time he was a young adult, he’d put in 10,000 hours of practice at music and was one of the most gifted musicians of all time. Bill Gates grew up in such an environment that he could invest 10,000 hours of his adolescence on programming, meaning he was a master programmer at the exact time the world needed master programmers.

The second I read that chapter I began doing very sloppy math, trying to figure out how many hours I’d spent writing from my childhood up until today. No matter how you slice it, the number doesn’t come out to 10,000, and I immediately hated myself for the wasted hours of my childhood and teenage years that I spent not writing.

In fourth grade I routinely blew my 30-minute post-lunch recess playing tag with my friends instead of sitting inside and writing – over the course of 170 days in an Oregon school year, that’s 85 hours wasted! In seventh and eighth grade I went to school an hour early every day for jazz band – AKA 415 hours of wasted writing time, if you count weekend competitions and sectionals. If I’d opted out of my senior prom and just written something instead, I’d be six hours closer to mastery – hell, even if I skipped prom and spent the time punching myself in the face I’d still probably have had a better time.

That got me thinking. There’s 8765 hours in a year and I’ve been alive for almost 24 of them – that’s 210,360 hours, give or take a few, that I’ve had at my disposal to dedicate to the mastery of any given discipline under the sun. I’ve been unaware of the 10,000 hours rule for virtually all my life, but it stands to reason that out of 210,360 hours of life I’ve probably spent 10,000 on a couple of different activities, making myself a master purely by accident.

Assuming that I sleep 8 hours a night – I don’t most weeknights, but if we count childhood naps and weekends where I sleep ten hours or more, I think it averages out – I’ve spent 70,080 hours of my life asleep. So I can safely say I kick ass at sleeping. I’m the Mozart of sleep. This isn’t really so impressive when you remember that every other 24 year old on Earth has roughly this same level of mastery, so I don’t stand out that much unless I’m competing against insomniacs – and even then, all it takes is one narcoleptic or a person who’s been in a coma to blow me out of the water.

By that same logic, I’m also a real prodigy at watching TV, surfing the Internet, and eating peanut butter straight from the jar. Unfortunately, these skills aren’t exactly in high demand. I doubt I could start a business where people paid me to look up stuff on the Internet for them, nor could I fill the Hollywood Bowl with spectators eager to watch me eat peanut butter.

It’s comforting, though, to know that I have the ability to be the best at anything in the world, provided I can spare 10,000 hours to practice it. At this point, I figure I’ve probably logged around 8750 hours at writing, so I may as well just see this thing through. If I get fed up with it, though, I’ll just take 14 months off work and get really, really, really, really good at knitting.

Truman Capps is probably the world's foremost authority on hearing jokes about The Truman Show.