When I was around 16 years old and just starting to get serious about playing bass, my parents sat me down one night to talk to me about something. Both of them visibly excited because they’d heard about this new study (knowing them, they probably heard it on NPR). The study, which was later popularized in Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, suggested that successful individuals tended to have put in around 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to their given field/craft/etc. They enthusiastically explained that I didn’t need to be talented at playing bass; all I needed to do was spend 10,000 hours practicing it. At which point, I burst into tears, much to my parents’ stunned horror.
Looking back on this incident, I’m still not quite sure why I reacted that way. I think for me, I knew that I really loved playing bass, and really wanted to get good at it, but couldn’t even fathom spending that much time practicing. I’ve always enjoyed playing with other people a lot more than locking myself in a practice room and even today, after a decade and a half of playing bass, I still have to motivate myself to practice the way most people have to motivate themselves to go to the gym.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the “10,000 hour rule” – as it’s often called. It begs a lot of questions: Just what is “dedicated practice”? What impact does neurology have on development? What kinds of opportunities and advantages does one need to have to put in 10,000 hours into something? As far as I can tell, the answers to these questions, in order, are: “it depends,” “it depends,” and “a lot.”
While the rule had come up in my dissertation interviews, I hadn’t really given the matter much thought in the recent past. A few weeks ago, I was facing the prospect of taking my third extension on turning in my dissertation draft, which was just ripping me apart inside. I often read non-fiction/pop psych books before I go to bed (they’re like cool down laps for my brain). One night, I was reading a book called Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013). [I’ll probably write about this book in greater length at a later time – the point in a nutshell is that low self-confidence is actually a good thing, as it can motivate you to gain more competence and allow you to not be someone with false self-confidence and vastly overestimated competence] I was particularly struck by this passage:
The ten-thousand-hour rule is not only factor determining people’s success (there’s also talent and opportunity), but it is uncommon to find exceptional people who have worked fewer hours at their craft. Let me save you the calculations: If you work eight hours a day, seven days a week, it will take you almost three and a half years to accumulate the necessary working hours to become an expert, which tends to be the minimum time frame for completing a PhD program.
I thought, “Man, I have been working about 60 hours a week on this dissertation non-stop for a long, long time…” I wondered why it was taking me so much longer than 3 ½ years to finish the PhD (I got my master’s in 2010, so it’s been just over 4 years). Then I realized that while I’ve been in the program for 4 years, I had had a major upset about a year and a half into it and had completely changed my dissertation focus. So the topic that I have now and have been working on 50+ hours a week since I made the shift… I’ve been working on it for a little under 3 years. A few days later, I took a quarter-long (about 3 months) extension on the dissertation with the understanding that it might take even longer than that.
The thing that I didn’t realize going into the dissertation process is that it’s not just a matter of “writing the dissertation.” To write a good dissertation, you have to be really, really good at dissertation writing – which takes lots and lots and lots of practice. You have to practice structuring your ideas, synthesizing information, refocusing you research “lens,” correctly using elements of academic writing, etc. By viewing my dissertation process as a 10,000 hour-long ordeal, I’ve gotten a much more realistic idea of the work that I still need to put into it.
There are pros and cons to putting 10,000 hours into something and getting exceptionally good at it. For me, I feel a lot more confident in and happy with myself than I’ve been before. Tremendous gains in competence – as Chamorro-Premuzic points out – lead to genuine confidence. Furthermore, while I don’t want to spend the rest of my life intensely focusing on academic writing, I know that I’m not just getting good at dissertation writing. With any kind of practice, you’re rarely just getting good at one thing. I know that I’ll be able to apply a lot of the skills I learned through the dissertation into contexts that are more suited to my career interests.
The main downside to working this hard on something is that it’s really socially isolating. Luckily, playing bass allow me to see a lot of people at rehearsals or gigs. However, if I weren’t playing, I’d go days without talking to more than a handful of people. It’s been very hard for me to keep in touch with non-musician friends, friends who are out of town, and extended family members. While I’m desperate to move onto the next stage of my life and start reconnecting with folks, I think that the dissertation process is worth the relatively temporary sacrifices.
To return to my bass playing, which should have been my 10,000 hour-project – I always wished I could’ve had the same focus for bass that I have for research and writing. I think part of it was having academic, but non-musical parents; but I also think that I was just more cut out for constructing ideas than constructing sounds. I don’t think I’ve hit the 10,000-hour mark with bass, but I’m sure I will at some point. Here’s the thing, though – I’ve had several musicians say (and I believe it) that to be really good at something, you need to spend a couple years of your life doing something 8+ hours a day, every day. I’ve had patches of 8+ hours a day playing, but not consistently over several years. I know that undergraduate music programs are often designed to allow for that kind of time commitment. For various reasons, I was unable to (and on some level, decided not to) do this.
I know that I am a lot happier, healthier, and more focused at (almost) 30 than I was 20. I guess the dissertation came at the right time in my life. It’s certainly gets harder to put in that kind of time after your early 20s, but it’s definitely not impossible. Even with my bass playing, I still make time for dedicated practice and try to be constantly improving. I’d say that I’d probably be done with my dissertation by now if I didn’t spend so much time playing bass, but I know that I couldn’t have done the dissertation project at all without my experience and knowledge as a bassist.
At some point I realized that while I’d need 10,000 hours to be an exceptional, world-class bassist, I didn’t need that much to be a decent, competent one. I like the challenges of developing good technique (with a little help from yoga), intonation, tone, rhythm, sight-reading skills, etc. I try to be a decent soloist, but I know that as a bassist, my job first and foremost is to support other players – not be “flashy.” When I heard about the 10,000 hour rule, I cried because I thought I would be a failure as a bassist unless I built my life around it. Now I realize that the fact that I can fit bass into my life – even while finishing a dissertation – means that I fell in love with the right instrument.