Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Outstanding performance - a talent or 10,000 hours of practice?

The purpose of today's post is to reflect on a couple of the principles from my annual plan ("There are no shortcuts!" and "Good enough is good enough") and to comment on Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers which has been receiving a lot of press of late and mixed reviews. I've included a number of the reviews in the links at the end so you can decide for yourself whether you'd like to read the book. Personally I found it very persuasive.

A very old watercolour - Pura Taman Saraswati (September 1992)
watercolour on Arches NOT paper

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Outliers is a fascinating and thought-provoking read. It's about unpicking the explanations behind people who have produced exceptional results. Note I didn't say that the people are exceptional. That's the point of the book. Too many times people who have done well are described as 'very smart' or 'very ambitious'. Gladwell's point is that there are lots of talented and/or smart and/or ambitious people who don't do exceptionally well. He thought there was probably a better explanation and he concludes it's one which might well be found in the culture, age, environment and opportunities that are available to those that achieve success (such as Bill Gates having access to a computer for programming software while in his teens ). Gladwell has produced some propositions in his book which I personally find very persuasive. This includes identifying a range of factors which can lead to people becoming successful - such as being born in the right place at the right time which is amazingly influential as he demonstrates.
But first........... an explanation of the above painting. It's extremely rare. That's because it's a watercolour done by me, the dry media fiend! I started it sitting next to the Lotus Pool (continuing the theme of ponds!) at the back of the Cafe Lotus in Ubud in Bali in September 1992 - which makes it 16 years old!

Just look at the leaves on those trees and the brash colour! (photos on Flickr of the real thing) At least it taught me a really good lesson at the time - which was that I hadn't yet mastered watercolour. I keep it to remind me just how 'good' I am at watercolour! I was thought of this painting this morning when looking at Joseph Raffael's website where there are various paintings of a lotus pool in Bali - which I immediately recognised as being the lotus pool in Ubud! It's always a salutary experience to take a look at the painting of a subject you've painted - but painted by somebody who not only knows what he or she is doing but has also been doing it for rather longer! (Check out Raffael's CV )

That said, I'd like to think that I've got a bit better at my art since 1992 both in terms of the switch to dry media plus all the hours I've spent on drawing and developing artwork!

Which is really the focus of this post - the need to put in the hours.

10,000 hours

In Making A Mark in 2009 - The Plan, I indicated that I try to work by a couple of principles

  1. There are no shortcuts! For me shortcuts are for keyboards rather than artwork. You become more efficient and effective at producing art through reiteration and refinement and changing the way you do things. You've got to put in the hours.
  2. 'Good enough' is good enough. This might seem contradictory to the above - whereas in my view it's actually the other side of the coin. You've got to put in the hours AND know when to stop. An attitude of perfectionism can be very limiting - whereas practice makes perfect.
Making A Mark in 2009 - The Plan
Gladwell highlights the need to put in the hours as a really important explanation of why some people become very successful. He identifies 10,000 hours as being the minimum requirement for becoming seriously good at whatever you do based on various research which has been done.

In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.
Here's another source saying the same thing

To become an outstanding performer, one does not need an innate endowment of the right sorts of genes; instead, one simply needs to engage in deliberate practice for around 10,000 hours. Outstanding Performers: Created, Not Born? New results on Nature vs Nurtue by David R Shanks
Now I guess most people's reactions to 10,000 hours is that's way too much time to find. However I guess at the end of the day, it really all depends on how much you want to be successful.

Competition in the marketplace

However Seth Godin points out that it's much easier to become a success if you put in 10,000 hours - because most people give up after 5,000 hours! He also points out that's it easier to become successful in areas where the marketplace is new and/or where competition is less prevalent and less motivated to pursue success.Remember, there's an awful lot of watercolour artists out there all vying to be the best!I commented recently that I found it very difficult to find artists who were still genuinely posting a new painting every day. That's because of the 'die-off' factor. Long time readers of this blog will remember one of my all-time popular blog posts about The Stickability Factor written in the context of vast number of artists taking up daily painting with a view to becoming a successful artist. (Can I just emphasise that the people who gave up daily painting are emphatically normal. That's the point of Gladwell's book - the people who 'make it' are those who had the opportunities or inherited a culture which enabled them to put in the hours - and they did).

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!"
a very old adage - for a good reason

"how to paint" in 5 easy lessons

Of course the notion of 10,000 hours being a benchmark for becoming successful is the complete antithesis of the 'how to' in 5 easy lessons culture.

I'm all for breaking down learning skills into stages and digestible chunks - that's just good practice. But the implicit suggestion which one sometimes comes across that, by following the 'easy lessons', you'll become really skilled in double quick time is one which I find very difficult to digest. [Note: I've also just deleted a sentence which was very explicit about what I thought about people who make these sort of suggestions and promises! ]We seem to live in a culture nowadays where people expect to be successful really quickly. However, while labour-saving devices are enabling me to write this blog post while I do my laundry at the same time, the reality is that there is no easy shortcut to acquiring personal skills - especially those involving the exercise of the brain and the co-ordination of hand and eye.

Creating the time - minimising interruptions

It would also seem that only really concentrated focus on an activity enables people to develop skills. David Brooks in the New York Times felt that Gladwell's explanations were not sufficient. He commented as follows
Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.
Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them.
David Brooks New York Times Lost in the Crowd
Jakob Neilsen this week suggested that one of the ways that one can find the hours to get things done is to become much more focused about how you work. In this week's Alertbox article, Ten Steps for Cleaning Up Information Pollution, he advocates implementing good time management practices.....
All time-management courses boil down to one basic piece of advice: set priorities and allocate the bulk of your time to tasks that are crucial to meeting your goals. Minimize interruptions and spend big chunks of your time in productive and creative activity. Ten Steps for Cleaning Up Information Pollution
He also suggests creating that focus by eliminating all sources of interruptions from information-related technology. This suggestion is based on the notion that interruptions disturb the flow and for every minute of an interruption it'll take 10 minutes to get back in the groove. Bear in mind he's also a bit of a guru around how best to use technology! I somehow feel he won't be an advocate of Twitter!I'll finish with the quote I've been using repeatedly in relation to daily painting
"What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way." Winslow Homer
Note: Pura Taman Saraswati is devoted to Dewi Saraswati the goddess of learning, literature and the arts.



  1. Well, I agree with him in a very general way on the 10,000 hours bit -- it's a nice benchpost to start by and goes a long way to dispel the myth that talented people simply burst from talented shells fully formed, and that isn't the case.

    And it certainly seems that way for me and writing -- I definitely have logged at least 10,000 hours of writing since I was a teen before I landed my first publishing contract.

    That said, however, I think that 10,000 hours thing ignores a really important part of the equation: how efficiently you use those hours. And the fact that the learning is accelerated towards the end if you are doing it right. For instance, when I learned to play my pipes, I practiced two hours a day for two years. At the end of the two years, I stepped onto the pipe band's competition team, taking the place (much to their anger) of some veterans who had been playing for 40 years. But repetition is not learning. Doing is not learning. For some reason, my hours were counting for more than their hours. And in two more years, I overtook the rest of the band as well -- because I was learning at an accelerated pace. The long time is acquiring proficiency -- everything after that, if you're still learning, is acquiring brilliance.

    So here's my theory: talented people are those who know how to learn. They know how to practice, to find patterns, and most importantly, to not reinvent the wheel. They shave years off their 10,000 hours by being able to look at other people in their field who have succeeded and define and incorporate why they are successful.

  2. Nice one Maggie.

    Maggie commented because I asked her whether she'd put in the 10,000 hours on her writing which I rather suspected she had. Turns out I guessed right!

    She has two new novels out in 2009 - and a contract with and the backing of JK Rowling's publisher.

  3. I just wanted to say I think your watercolour is super, I wonder why you stopped?

    The 10,000 hours is interesting - I agree practice is the key. But he seems to be saying more about the conditions needed to be successful and that does seem to be the case when you read bios - successful people seem to find the right people at the right time to make things happen. (I'm not sure I'd like to define 'success' these days though.)

  4. Excellent post Katherine, thank you! I haven't read the Outliers but may do.

    I agree that the myth of the 'gifted or talented' is just a myth. Putting in the hours and, as Maggie said, knowing how to focus those hours and use them well are key.

    Concentration, knowledge of technique, looking at the work and plans of others and plain old hard work are the keys to success. That element of being in the right place at the right time theory helps also or at least removes some of the hurdles for some people.

    That and having a goal to aim for help move you in the right direction.

    If anyone still thinks there's a 'god given talent' for artists or musicians or writers, then they've never actually analyzed how people achieve success in their chosen field.

  5. LOL! I also just referenced the 10000 hours idea in this morning's blog post on goals. Guess I should have checked here first ;-) I'm a big fan of Gladwell's books and have also enjoyed some of his interesting talks on the T.E.D site(Technology Entertainment and Design.) Great to see your ever-thorough investigation of this topic.

  6. I just saw your post is talant 'OR' 10,000 hours. Hmm, I think there is a trend to dismiss talant. It's very unfashionable to say some people find things easier than others and actually it's just practice. Autistic savants like Stephen Wiltshire can show exceptional talent at a very young age. I believe it's down to the way the brain is wired - mine simply isn't wired to understand maths and 10,000 hours just isn't going to change that. You could say a car is just 4 wheels and an engine but a Fiat Panda is not going to perform like an Aston Martin, and equally our brains are not all the same, making the same connections, in the same places at the same speed. Life ain't fair, some people are more gifted or talented in certain areas than others and for some reason are driven to practice that (potential) skill. There needs to be ability in the first place for the practice to be worthwhile. You could certainly put 10,000 hours in and be good or even great but some individuals are obviously outstanding - and I think to them it comes so easily they can't describe it. BTW, I noticed all those British expat kids doing tennis lessons hasn't produced loads of British tennis superstars, and where are the ballerinas and horse riders! ;)

    I think the calling talent a myth has done a bit of harm for artists. Quite often I hear the phrase 'we are all artists' and coupled with the 'talent myth' only means more and more are claiming to be artists with a dash of line and a slap of colour - and getting away with it.

    Talent and success are not the same thing.

  7. Katherine,
    I do about 400 paintings a year, many are simple studies, but I think professionals have to put in that kind of committment in order to excel.

  8. Mmmm, Felicity's post has me thinking, but I'm still not sure I'm happy with the term "talent." I really prefer "aptitude." It's a pretty established fact that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that the more intelligent you are in any given direction, the more easily you'll learn a task in that direction. So, an artistically "smart" person will tackle creative tasks more easily than an artistically "dumb" person.

    But I'm not entirely certain that a 10 year old prodigy with major aptitude and artistic intelligence will, in the end, be better than a 60 year old with only slight aptitude and a math intelligence that worked his butt off to get to the same place with his art. At a certain level, I think that a lack of "talent" is made up for by passion and the ability to learn in other areas.

  9. Hard work has always been the common denominator of successful people. Thomas Edison said genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration. I've generally found that to be true.

  10. I think the lotus foreground of your 'old' watercolour is particularly beautiful, Katherine. It would be great to see you get out the brushes again but I also think the coloured pencil pictures you are currently doing of the pond have a beautiful watercolour quality and a unique style.

    Now I'm kicking myself for all the hours I've wasted in the past three years. I think there is a great deal of truth in the 10,000 hour theory because I know I took giant leaps in skill when I started drawing and I recall now I was obsessed - I did nothing else, seven days a week. Three months of that time I was at the farm without broadband. Now I waste so much time with this darn computer.

  11. I have started to get increasingly irritated by people saying to me 'Oh I wish I could draw, you're so lucky'. I now firmly say that the only reason I can is because I practiced over and over again. And I wish I'd practiced more because I'd be a damn sight better. I also reckon hours at the beginning of your life when your brain absorbs like a sponge may have a higher currency than hours later on in life.
    BTW I think you're too harsh on yourself with regard to your watercolours.

  12. 10,000 hours sounds reasonable. All I can say is that I'm at 10 years and not there yet. :)

    But I don't think just the hours is a magic ticket. There still will be elements of talent, learning ability (as Maggie says), drive and exposure to different subjects/mediums/opportunities/motivators.

    Do it and do it again. And again. The best advice really. :)

  13. P.S. I *like* those brash colours! Especially of the water lilies in the foreground.

  14. [Disclaimer - I haven't yet read this book - but it's in the queue at the library. My opinions are based on reading reviews and comments on blogs.]

    I think it's important to remember that Gladwell is writing about people who have done exceptional things. Not exceptional people.

    That is why I discount Seth's argument that you can be successful in less time if you have less competition. Of course you can, but then I would say maybe what you have done is not really all that exceptional so you don't fall into the same category of the folks Gladwell is writing about.

    Do I put Molly Katzen (who I love and own most of her recipe books) in the same category as Bill Gates. Well - maybe not.

    Successful and Exceptional aren't the same to me.

    As to the talent/time issue - I think if you put in the 10,000 hours you'd suddenly find you have a lot more talent than you expected. But we all tend to give up long before we push through to the part where it gets easier.

    The exceptional part is sticking with something for the 10,000 hours. In addition to the practice that you gain by putting in the time, I think there is a lot to be said for the type of person that will actually do this. It's rare. People get bored and wander off - that's normal as you said.

    The exceptional are those that don't quit.

    I'm nearing about 5,000 hours working on my Structures series and I'd say that another 5,000 more and maybe I'll do something expectational. And I have no plans to give up before I find out :)

  15. I'll comment further when the comments begin to slow. Keep them coming - this is really interesting!

    Just for the record the book is about a lot more than just 10,000 hours.

    Opportunities to do with time, culture and place are also very important.

    For example, the right time and place thing
    - Canadian hockey players getting selected for the national team - it turned out it depended on when your birthday was
    - mega success in the IT industry, again it depended on when and where you were born. Virtually all the top people are all born within about 18 months of one another (from memory). They got started early in an undeveloped industry and hence got a massive headstart on everybody else. They'd already got their 10,000 hours logged when everybody else was waking up to the potential of what might be. Plus they did the necessary work BEFORE they realised the market potential.
    - the richest men in the world ever were all born in a short space of time

    Then there are issues to do with culture
    - Asian kids are spectacularly good at maths because of the way their numbers are 'said' and worked out. Again, they progressed faster because they didn't have to spend so long learning the words for the number system and how that system worked!
    - the reason why certain planes crash (that was one was horrifying and so sad)
    - and so on............

    Can you think of anything like this which applies to art
    - like being in Paris and studying art in the studio of a certain artist in the second half of the nineteenth century
    - all the contemporary artists in recent times who benefited from a bubble which took an awful long time to burst - and earned huge sums as a result. Are those artists 'better' than others or did they just happen to be fortunate to be in a certain time and place?

    Read the book - it makes you think!

  16. Fascinating post and comments. I hadn't heard about the 10,000 hours before. Since I recently wrote about my 10,000 Days of Art Project (# of days I anticipate I have left to make art), putting in 10,000 hours sounds just fine. I think that talent/aptitude, skill, luck, desire, resources, persistence/compulsion, hard work, time, and popular culture probably all play a part in what is (or what is considered to be) outstanding performance.

  17. Hi Katherine,
    Interesting post :)

    um as far as the asians being good at math I stand proof that for every rule there is an exception. I stink at math.

    My personal theory about asians and math goodness is that math is a language that is understandable regardless of language spoken. 2+2=4 whether it's dos + dos = quartro or er + er=sì.

    Well you get the idea.

    Great article-I saw outliers at a bookstore but didn't pick it up; think I have to now.

  18. I couldn't believe it when I saw your post. Just today I picked up a book on this very topic - Talent is Overrated - What really separates World-Class performers from everybody else by Geoff Colvin. I'm only a couple of chapters in and I shall review it on my blog when I finish. So far it seems to be in agreement that what matters is 10,000 hours of practice. Deliberate practice. The sort of thing that is hard work and not always fun, and that involves feedback. Not 10,000 hours of just doing something without really thinking about it.
    Colvin wrote an article back in 2006 in Fortune magazine about it (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/10/30/8391794/index.htm) and, although his book is very much slanted towards the business world, it is still interesting and thought-provoking.

    I think that different kinds of intelligences do exist and, according to the portion of Colvin's book that I've read so far, higher intelligence is helpful when a person first tried an activity but made no difference over time. The way the person set up their learning and the way they practiced was what made all the difference.

    The question all this talent vs. practice research has not yet answered is this: What drives someone to do all that intensive practice to reach world-class level?

    I am glad to see a return to the importance of practice. All those "Five minutes to an acrylic painting" programs have been getting on my nerves! Is the emperor wearing a suit made of gold or a suit made of, well, skin?

  19. Very interesting post, indeed! I'd like to add one thing: mastery is nothing without happiness. I spent well over 10,000 hours studying math and physics and then practiced engineering for ten years, and yet I never felt truly successful. I worked hard and performed well, but I felt deeply unfulfilled because it wasn't something that truly interested me. I think that a lack of interest and passion can inhibit growth no matter how many hours are logged.

    Now I've been working as an artist for almost two years - well under 10,000 hours (though I did spend much time drawing when I was younger), and I do see a lot of room for improvement, but I also feel that I have come much further in a shorter amount of time than when I was working as an engineer. Even though I know that I have a lot to learn, I am happy and therefore successful to myself.

  20. Oh, I love all this brain stuff, thanks Katherine for discussing it. My thoughts...
    - I agree that putting in the hours is invaluable. People don't realize how many hours Michael Jordan put in on the court shooting free throws. Especially when motor skills are involved, repetition and muscle memory are key components. Some parts need to become habit and automatic without the cognitive processing.
    - That said, I also don't think it's just the time. I agree with Maggie that it's how you spend said time. If I spent 10,000 hours painting the same apple the same way (ok, it's plastic one so needn't worry about rottage), sure I'd improve. However, if I stretch myself, include parameters, limit color, change perspective, stand on my head, anything to include a cognitive or physical challenge, I'm creating new pathways in the brain that enhances my learning. More pathways mean more connections, more connections = more metaphors = more creativity. (What's the quote? "A mind once stretched never regains it's original proportions.")
    - The term 'talent' is tricky and simplistic. It implies something un-nurtured, but that's rarely the case. I see the creative arts as a form of problem-solving. How you see your skills and ideas changing depends on what problems you set yourself up with.
    - Then again, sometimes we all just crave junk food and an Elvis painting on velvet.

    Thanks Katherine for igniting such interesting discussions!

  21. The thing that stood out for my in your post was the '5 easy lessons' comment. As a librarian this is something I see in my daily work.

    People want instant information - even if they need 'serious' information they prefer Google to a scholarly database because it is quicker.

    And apart from biographies, many of the popular non-fiction coming out are bullet-point type "quick learns". Many of our borrowers don't want to read in-depth analysis of their subject; they want an overview.

    This of course filters down to what they achieve with that new knowledge; a "cardigan in 5 easy steps" looks like a cardigan in 5 easy steps. A new cardigan but with no real art or craft - but also I suspect no real pleasure in having learnt something new and spent the time to get good at it.

  22. Katherine, that book is sounding very interesting! I knew someone in Kuwait who was a wealthy, successful woman but hated the country. When I asked why she didn't leave, she said ' I can be a big fish in a small pond here'. I find it very interesting to look at history and see how many great people had similarly great peers - take Michelangelo, Da Vinci and the Renaissance artists. Or inventions, art movements and discoveries where two or more people seem to have had similar ideas at the same time. (I'm not brilliant at history but for example - Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird. Galileo and Newton overlapped by a year.) There has to be, I think, some environmental factors that make it happen. I think we also have to remember that culture and society shape what we call talent and success (I agree with Maggie, I'm not happy with that word either). We tend to define them in terms of what is valuable in the time we live. There may be Michalangelos today but his skills don't have the same value today, we want artists to shock, surprise, disgust, make installations etc. In other words we get signals to channel our energy in certain ways.

    More than anything, we define talent and success in terms of monetary value and having to reach very large audiences. I believe everyone has unique ability but it may be a talent for dressing beautifully - understanding your body shape and using clothes and colours in an inspired way. (Victoria Beckham and Diana have/had it) or it may be a talent to connect with people, make them feel good. It may even be something we'd class as a negative thing. But if it's not worth anything, we dismiss it and so we think only a few select individuals are gifted. It's all about reaching the masses now and Gladwell seems to be doing it very successfully too!

    Yes, right place, right time might be the key.

  23. If you love the activity then 10,000 hours is nothing

  24. what an interesting discussion this one started!

    I'm of the talent being the whole reason for accelaratd learning school- but you won't get anywhere without that hard work, I think it involves an insight into firstly seeing and then interpreting a subject.

    Talent alone isn't going to be enough - in fact that was part of the pep talk at the beginning of my degree 'ok you've all got talent .... but that's only 10% - now the other 90% is hard work' they told us.

    Stephen Wilshire, autistic savant mentioned in an earlier comment, is utterly brilliant at what he does (there is a link in the side panel of my blog to a video of him working) but because of his autism he only works in a certain way, in line, representational and with total recall - but ask him to experiment, use colour and mass, move things around and he most likely would be incapable.

    Yep, I must have put in the requisit hours over the years and I too get fed up with the 'you are so lucky ....' I wouldn't say that to an athlete so why to an artist?

  25. Wow, this has all been incredibly stimulating reading. I certainly wish I could gather this whole group together in one place and pick brains. This blog is the next best thing. Thanks Katherine.

  26. Katherine I hope you don't mind another comment from me!

    Vivien, Stephen Wiltshire is doing colour now. I saw a programme about him not so long ago and he has his own gallery (or did at the time) in Trafalgar Square. He appeared to be going towards more loose colourful work - I seem to remember street scenes and cars...(Yes, I'm jealous!)

    What interests me about savants is that they can possess incredible abilities and it relates to what I said early about the way our brains are programmed. Perhaps (only my theory) it is possible to have these great talents only if the brain channels info in an extremely limited way - like the saying 'jack of all trades, master of none' but the extreme opposite. Normal brains have to be a 'jack of all trades' for us to function and socialise etc. I find it very interesting as it must surely mean our brains are capable of incredible things if we could find out how it works.

  27. Great thought provoking post. 10,000 hours is a lot of time - but when I think about people I know who are very, very talented - musicians, artists, even knitters - one thing they have in common is an almost obsessive need to do that thing whenever they have a little time free.

  28. Felicity I'll have to take a look at that, it sounds interesting - and yes I do believe that our brains are wired in certain ways - mine is NOT wired for organisation/maths at all!

    When total beginners join my class and ask if it's remotely possible that I can teach them to paint/draw, I assure them I can.

    I tell them yes, I can teach them to get fairly good - and if they turn out to have that extra spark then VERY good. The fun thing is finding those who didn't know but turn out to be very talented - and they are always the ones who work hard too.

  29. 10,000 hours seems incredibly daunting when you think of it as one big chunk like that. But I have to remember I'm not starting at zero here.

    I have an illness which leaves me with a very limited amount of time/energy/ability in which to do anything (including the daily tasks of self care) so it seems all the more overwhelming.

    But having said that 10,000 hours for exceptional work sounds about right and like something I want to, need to, do. It just might take me a little longer to get there than for others. But it doesn't mean I want it any less.

    Thanks for this - very interesting.

  30. I'm entering this interesting discussion rather late - catching up on what I've missed while away. I think that some people are born with an aptitude, sometimes nurtured by their upbringing, even if that aptitude is just to want to try and try again at their chosen pastime while other children expend their time and energies elsewhere. The 'inclined' start totting up their 10,000 hours (must find that book!) and emerge later in some class to be labelled as 'talented'. The ability to turn that talent into success I believe requires different skills, training, mentoring or luck.


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