Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The 10,000-Hour Rule

I am a huge fan of the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it because it explains why certain individuals and types of people realize an exceptionally high level of success. Throughout the book Gladwell refers to the 10 year or 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell did not invent the idea; it was actually proposed forty years ago by Herbert Simon and William Chase, two psychologists. Simon and Chase examined chess players and found there were no naturally born chess talents, not even Bobby Fischer. They concluded chess players had to spend on average 10 years or 10,000 hours dedicated to studying the game and perfecting their skills in order to become a grandmaster.

In today’s society people change professions quite regularly. A 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal claimed most Americans average seven careers during their lifetime. If you work 8 hours a day during the approximately 250 business days each year that is 2,000 hours a year at your job. That means you would have to spend five years in each position to become an expert. That sounds feasible. Twenty two years of schooling, 35 years working, that puts you at 57 or so for retirement if you go straight through. Not too bad. But that also means that the second you become an “expert” you start over again from scratch which isn’t ideal.

In my current career (I had two previously) I do not consider myself an expert, yet. But I’m working on it. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The project started in 1999 and is aimed at encouraging amateur writers to write a novel during the 30 days of November. I have never written a novel as part of NaNoWriMo, but I’ve taken part in it the last three years with an academic goal in mind. Instead of working on a novel I aim to write a couple of research articles, or work on other writing projects I’m pursuing.

This year as I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo I found AcWriMo. AcWriMo is a spin off designed specifically for academics. Even better. This time around I am trying to get my current and former graduate students to join the challenge. And I have my own goals as well. I plan to write two journal articles, one book chapter outline and an IRB proposal. The goals are supposed to be overly ambitious during AcWriMo, and normally I wouldn’t consider these goals particularly challenging for me, but this month I will be out of the country for 12 days and am unsure how much writing I will actually manage to accomplish while travelling.

For graduate students and professors out there reading this I encourage you to participate in AcWriMo. If nothing else I think adopting a daily writing habit, even if for a short while is healthy. I always encourage my graduate students to write for two hours a day. But I don’t think they listen to me. I think they, like most people, tend to use a feast or famine approach with writing; they don’t write for days or weeks and then when a deadline is approaching, or they see me coming, they write for hours on end several days in a row, often feeling burnt out at the end.

I always try to write two hours each day. And having a blog has been a great encouragement to make sure I do write daily (every week day at least). I normally spend about 30 minutes on my blog and then another 90 minutes to 2 hours on academic writing projects. To put this in perspective, today marks my 82nd blog post. I took my last 20 blog posts and did an average word count. I average 599 words per post. With 82 blogs written to date that equals 49,200 words. 49,200 words at 250 words per page equals 197 pages of writing. Hmmm….. sounds like the length of your average dissertation.

The moral of the story is that slow and steady wins the race. Dissertations, or research articles, or whatever you may be writing, will probably be much more enjoyable if you pace yourself. And, if you make it a regular habit, you can probably get it done in a reasonable amount of time with minimal stress.

So, if you are an academic out there reading this, I realize it is already November 4th, but it’s not too late to join AcWriMo. Plus, it will help you to join now because you need to get your 10,000 hours (or 10 years) in. I was a Ph.D. student for 2 years, and this is my 6th year as a professor. Thus, I haven’t hit the 10 year mark. Two hours of writing a day, 250 days a year for 8 years… that’s still only 4,000 hours. Like I said, I’m working towards becoming an expert, but I’m not there quite yet.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “achievement is talent plus preparation.” For everyone reading this, regardless of your profession, I think we can always use a little more preparation, or practice. The other saying with which I believe we are all familiar is, “practice makes perfect.” I’m not convinced about that one, but hey, why not strive to be perfect?


  1. or . . . "Perfect Practice makes Perfect" ?
    You will KNOW who this is.