10,000 hours of practice

It is funny to me that the biggest message that most people seem to have gotten out of Outliers  by Malcolm Gladwell is the 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert idea. Even people who have not read it have received that idea. And like so many sound bites, it is a faulty message. Because it is not just 10,000 hours of practice, it is 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice with the intent of becoming good at whatever it is.

Growing up, I put in quite a few hours of practice playing the piano. Am I any good at it now? Minimally. Why? Because the practice I put in was casual and indifferent, with no focused attempt to understand what I was doing or how to become really better. I was punching the time clock, not actually trying to master a skill.

Simply doing something you want to do for 10,000 hours is not going to make you an expert.

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What is success?

AKA, rural poverty is not always what it appears

Funny thought, isn’t it? Triggered by some of the comments to this blog post.

Not to get too deeply into them, since that would lead to the assumption that I had read them all. I haven’t, because after a while, comments tend to repeat themselves, and some of the commenters were beginning to annoy me.

But anyway, the thought that I had in response to this had to do with the descriptions of the poverty in Appalachia. Now I don’t want to downplay the observations about poverty and the kind of shame that some of the commenters were describing, because it is perfectly true. That emotion is real and powerful. While I myself did not grow up in that kind of area, I have maternal roots in that area, and relatives who still live there. One of my closest friends comes from those same kinds of roots in Tennessee. I recognize that emotion.

It’s just that I have a counter-experience to offer and a sense of peace that I have achieved.

When going back to visit some of my family, I see a different experience. Partly that goes back to the fact that these relatives have not been limited by their roots, but rather strengthened. Which is why I think that sense of peace is there — by not being limited by those foundations, I have been able to see, both in myself and in my cousins, that those foundations have strengthened rather than weakened us. We are not ashamed of where we come from because we see the family ties that have given us the stability to reach past those areas and then to circle back to them.

Let me give an example: three cousins of the same family who grew up at least part of their youth in Appalachia.

Cousin 1 went into the armed forces and has had great success. He is nearing retirement at a fairly high officer level and will probably retire and find himself some other job in an area close to where he grew up in order to be close to family.

Cousin 2 got a good job with a company that moved her several times. In the process she eventually married and had two children. She and her husband have moved back to that general area where she grew up, and she has specifically stated that she went back there to raise her children in that environment.

Cousin 3 never completely left that area, but has pursued a career in law enforcement, and has had considerable success in the sense of earning well and raising his family where he wants to. He always wanted law enforcement, and never really desired to work in a big city, but instead has definitely preferred the small town atmosphere in which he grew up.

All three of them have experienced sufficient monetary success to not be limited to one area. But the money was always just a tool. What is more important is, I think, the fact that even as they achieved the freedom to leave if they so desired, they chose to stay, or at the very least, hold to their roots. The bonds of family and church and community hold them strongly and give them stability. They do not limit them or cause them to feel despair or shame. This does not mean that they do not recognize the problems: unemployment is a reality in many of those areas, health problems — such as the unhealthy eating and lack of exercise that leads to obesity problems — are very real, and quite a few of the people in those areas did “settle” for an average job that would never pay lots of money. But that does not make these people unsuccessful. It has taken me a while to see this more clearly, but I have begun to recognize that the individuals who do choose to stay in those areas are not always doing so because they are limited by lack of money or opportunity or courage or anything else you might name. They choose to stay because their priorities are different.

I’m not sure if I could have achieved that kind of mental peace if I had stayed in the area where I grew up. I did actually grow up in a suburb, far away from those mountain roots in which my mother grew, but the mental limitations of staying were the same for me. But because I did move away and have grown as I have grown, I begin to recognize that I could willingly move into a rural area and have a good life there. The main reason I don’t is because of the kind of work I do; it is hard to find my kind of work in one of those rural areas. The closest possibility for me would be to find a college town, where you get the opportunity for my kind of specialized work and a small town atmosphere.

I would also add that the internet and the increasingly globalized world in which we live is one of the things that makes this possible as well. Being rural is no longer a reason to be detached from the larger world — and that is more important than many people realize.

Anyway, that’s just some of the counter thoughts that I sometimes have as I read negative comments about the Appalachian area. The hill folk are nowhere near as limited as you might think.

Comments on Outliers

It was interesting reading this book. The entire idea behind it is what are the elements of success, presumably with the idea of being able to mimic them. As far as I could figure out, the list includes: cultural inheritance, family culture, chance/opportunity, and 10,000 hours of practice. However, he did not really emphasize the individual’s participation in success. It is incredibly important to make the choice to take advantage of your opportunities and the focus to put in those many hours of practice.

I found several ideas about this very provocative, and it definitely leaves me with a great appreciation of the foundation that my parents gave me. Because of them, I had a great education, a strong spiritual foundation, and lots of opportunities, many of which I took advantage of. I also have an attitude of “can-do” in approaching any topic that is clearly a result of the family and cultural legacy that they gave me. And from this book, I can appreciate it all the more.

However, I am still left with several problems. On of the first problems that occurred to me as I read through the concept of 10,000 hours of practice as one of the criteria of success — how to count those 10,000 hours? All three examples that the author gave: Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and the Beatles, had a concentrated focus of 10,000 hours of practice within a fairly confined time period. My question, however, was: does it have to be that focused a time period? I have a work/life balance that I try to achieve, yet the implication of his anecdotes is that these people so totally focused on their practice that the rest of their life took a back seat. In my life, crafting is obviously important to me, yet it is not something I want to be my source of income. I want it to remain the thing I do for pleasure and not for necessity, which means that I must have a job, which means that I don’t have time to devote those 10,000 hours within that confined space of time. Does that mean I can’t develop the level of expertise that his examplars did? Or can I achieve it over a lengthier amount of time? And what is included in that practice time? Does is have to be just one craft upon which I must focus, or is it possible for me to achieve a modicum of mastery in all of the fiber crafts in which I am interested, so that my field is not just weaving or quilting or knitting, but rather the fiber arts in general? Does it include all the time I spend thinking about those crafts, reading about them, preparing for them, shopping for the tools, evaluating a pattern, or does it focus specifically on the moment when I am doing that one part of the process which is weaving or knitting, etc.? I have my own thoughts, but the author does not even open the question, and that is a lack.

The other problem I had with his approach is that he never even discussed, not even in the intro, a definition of success. Yes, many of the individuals he cited can be considered successful, but only in a specific context. Bill Gates is successful in the computer world, the Beatles were successful in the music world. But are they successful in other contexts? Before you can decide if someone is successful, you must first figure out what successful is, and the author never addresses that question. Yet that is an important premise of his entire work. I don’t want Gates’ type of success. I’m even less interested in the Beatles’ type of success. I want a happy life, balanced between work and play, with constantly deepening spiritual growth and the enjoyable challenge of becoming a master in my vocation as a fiber artist while still enjoying my career as librarian, about which I do care. How do I achieve that according to his definitions?

And then, of course, as I already mentioned, he did not note the importance of the decision made by the individuals to pursue their success. The stories he offers make it clear that there were others in the same locations, with the same background and the same opportunities, yet they did not take advantage of them. The individual’s choices are still very important.

So, while I greatly enjoyed this book — it is well-written — and I found ideas of value in it, I was still frustrated by the underlying assumptions that the author never addresses.