October 14, 2008
The Theory of 10,000 Hours
A few weeks ago, David Brooks and Gali Collins, both of the New York Times, had this conversation:
David Brooks: Gail [Collins], you know one thing I didn’t get a chance to get into in that column was the theory of 10,000 hours: The idea is that it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at anything, whether it is playing tennis or playing the violin or writing journalism. I’m actually a big believer in that idea, because it underlines the way I think we learn, by subconsciously absorbing situations in our heads and melding them, again, below the level of awareness, into templates of reality. At about 4 p.m. yesterday, I was working on an entirely different column when it struck me somehow that it was a total embarrassment. So I switched gears and wrote the one I published. I have no idea why I thought the first one was so bad — I was too close to it to have an objective view. But I reread it today and I was right. It was garbage. I’m not sure I would have had that instinctive sense yesterday if I hadn’t been struggling at this line of work for a while.
And that’s the way it is with writing or editing. I don’t recall hearing of “the theory of 10,000 hours,” though its principle is one I’ve thought about often. It takes time to get good at anything of real value, and the subconscious absorption of situations, patterns, outcomes and what not amounts to a value gained that is more than the sum of its parts. You look at a manuscript and say to yourself, “This just isn’t right.” As an editor, it can be the hardest thing to come up with the words to communicate to an author why this is so—and to say it helpfully, not abrasively or deflatingly. You might want to say, “It’s not right. Believe me. Do it again. And maybe try this.” But often a more helpful way is to rewrite a paragraph and say, “I mean like this.” On the way to 10,000 hours, it helps to have some models to follow.
But it also applies to academic work—and to academic editors too. One way to look at the Ph.D. is to think of it in terms of the 10,000-hour theory. At root it’s a way of trying to get some kind of leverage on whether a person has "10,000 hours" of disciplined experience in making considered judgments in a subject area—in its methods, history, context, texts and ideas more generally. We might think of it as a scaffolding around the project that is their mind. It alone does not guarantee an outcome --we still need to probe and examine the foundation, the building materials, the integrity of the structure etc. Or discarding that metaphor as it starts to fail, it tells us that a person has served a (10,000-hour) disciplined apprenticeship under so and so. Again, no guarantees. But there is some reasonable expectation that they will have developed some important intellectual instincts in the field (depending, of course, on their mentors!) that we value and need.
It’s interesting that sometimes, when you’ve acquired some facility at something, too much reflection on how or why it works can lead to a fall. Several weeks ago I was on the downhill leg of my regular route on a nearby mountain trail, something I’ve done hundreds of times. It being late summer, when the trail deteriorates into dust and loose rock, I was wondering how it was that my mind and body computed my foot placement in this tricky terrain and why I didn’t fall, when—bang!—I was down, wind nearly knocked out, and scraped and sandpapered from shin to sternum. In over six years, that had never happened to me. And I’ve still not recovered my confidence on the downhill. I'm still working on my 10,000-hours!