10,000 hours

Imitation is the sincerest form of study

Way back, before I even knew for sure that writing was what I wanted to do for a living, a friend who was then editor for a feature section in the Indian Express, based in Madras, interrupted a random crib about a badly written newspaper story with a suggestion: “You think you can do better? Try it!”

At her prodding, I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out just what was wrong with the story, and then rewriting it. She took my effort, ripped it — deservedly — to bits, and left me with a suggestion: ‘Everyday, try rewriting one news story, one editorial piece, one sports story, and one of some other type.’

The exercise was a drag, to start with. But comes a time when the process begins to fascinate you — looking under the hood of the piece to see what makes it tick, separating fact from hype and hyperbole, then figuring out how best to present those facts, crafting the piece so it has structure and style, so that each thought leads seamlessly from the previous one and sets up the next, each graf is a natural successor to the previous one…

Typically, I did this late at night while the house was asleep, laboring for three, four hours each day and, once a week, presenting my friend [I mentioned her by name once, in a blog post, and got an earful, so I’ll leave her unnamed here] with the results for her critiques.

She also gave me another valuable — and ultimately, time consuming — bit of advice. When you come across a passage that particularly appeals to you, she said, try copying it out in long hand. The point, according to her, was that writing out great passages helped you absorb a sense of the rhythms and styles of writing; over time, they’d become part of muscle memory.

I was skeptical. She was not amused. Have you, she asked me then, ever visited an art gallery? Have you seen budding artists sitting in front of great paintings, and painstakingly copying them? Why do you suppose they do that? Because the process teaches you about strokes, textures, techniques of the masters — and over time, such exercises help make these techniques an integral part of your own skills.

It didn’t make sense at the time, but I did it anyway. [It was fairly hard to refuse my friend — she had the habit of asking what passages I had liked enough to copy down, lately]. And in time, as journalism went from being a vague notion to a dream to my profession, I realized the value of her advice.

I was reminded of all this by Amit Varma’s latest column: “Give me 10,000 hours.”

Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.

Go read. [And if you are, like me, clueless when it comes to all things money, check out Deepak Shenoy’s latest].

Another visual, to drive home the message 🙂 And a song, to round it all off.

10,000 hours... and more

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32 thoughts on “10,000 hours

  1. Pingback: Ten thousand hours « Stupidity – one at a time.

  2. This is a fantastic piece. Bless that friend for giving you such advice… May her tribe increase.

  3. Hi Prem,
    I keep hearing your statements on your general ignorance on stock investing… When you get a chance, please read about index mutual funds either in morningstart.com or fool.com. I am not suggesting you invest in those funds, studying about them gives us lots of perspectives on the stock market

    • Yes well, mate, I am a subscriber to the “little knowledge is a dangerous thing” philosophy. 🙂 Sure, I can read up on some of the stuff, but I find when I read business related things that I only process a fraction of what I am reading. Call it congenital — I’m just not into that thing. The good bit is, you get to know people who are, over time you end up trusting some of them, and then you follow their advice. Easier. At least for me.

  4. Prem,

    I’ll highly recommend this book called “The Talent Code” (http://www.amazon.com/Talent-Code-Greatness-Born-Grown/dp/055380684X). In this book, the author presents his findings from studying “talented” people. There are lot of interesting examples in there from various disciplines. The high level summary is that majority of ‘talented’ or ‘genius’ people are not born with that specific talent .. rather, they acquire it.

    We all know how our brain forms pathways / connections internally for everything new that we learn. Extremely large amounts of practice (done the ‘right’ way) leads to a huge buildup of a substance called ‘myelin’ – making these pathways super-fast. This is what allows the ‘talented’ individual to instinctively do better than his peers in all situations. The book goes into a lot of detail about this.

    Everyone talks about Sachin’s ‘talent’ but very few pay attention to how he practiced his art like there was no tomorrow and built up his skills. Same goes for Bobby Fisher or any other ‘prodigies’ that people talk about. Most of the times, these kids have spent thousands of hours building up their skill.

    • Thanks, dude — I have this book. 🙂 And it is all you say it is — very, very informative, and inspiring.

  5. Amazing. Probably thats the reason why few of our teachers used to make write english essay’s five times. English essay’s were fine, but failed to understand the point behind solving the same maths / science problem’s multiple times then, somewhere down the line got that point as well. Its amazing how much importance muscle memory has in our day to day life. Fed’s backhand or SRT’s drives are played much before in the practice sessions then their actual execution on the ground.
    Wonder what the new education theorists will say about this idea of writing “n” number of times?

    • The problem with education theorists and teachers, past and present, toying with this write it out philosophy is that too few of them bother to understand the hows and whys. They merely use it by rote, instructing the students to copy things out, without bothering to talk to them about writing, about the craft and the art of it. So it ends up being a profitless drudgery.

      Where I got lucky, for instance, was in having a friend who painstakingly explained why I was doing it, and then was patient enough to follow up. She’d occasionally look through my notebook, pick on a passage I had copied out, and ask me what about it attracted my attention. Initially I’d have merely topline answers “Oh, that seemed so good when I read it.” But after a dozen or so of such interactions, with her pushing me to go deeper each time, I got to where I’d break the passage down, and come up with stuff like “I like how within the para, long and short sentences, and within each sentence big and small words, are juxtaposed to create a drumbeat, a sense of rhythm and pace that drives the story along.”

      Once you got to that point, you began noticing these techniques almost unconsciously — and over time, they all added to your own skills template.

  6. Pingback: The first half-hour « Storybuilding

  7. Self realization, dedication and practice make room for perfection! 🙂 Surprise surprise despite all this I flunked math!:)

  8. I did a workshop with Randa Abdel-fateh, a writer, and she suggested copying works from your fave authors, in longhand. Never tried. But will. Nice post.

    ps: If it’s ok to ask — Who is the Express editor from chennai? I worked there for 5 years, so just wondering…

    • Um, I’d rather not say because she dumps on me if and when I mention her. Not sure you’d know her — she was part of IE in the mid 1980s, and handled a sub section of the paper.

      Randa’s advice is very good. With this caveat: If you are mechanically copying, don’t bother. But if as you write, you find that sense of the written word seeping into you, you’ve hit it. Each writer has a rhythm about his or her work — the pacing, the words used, the juxtaposition of short and long grafs and/or sentences, use of punctuation, whatever. As you write, you kind of “hear” that rhythm, and over time it all becomes part of you.

      Another trick you might want to try is, when you are done writing, try reading what you wrote out loud. If your sentences are clunky, convoluted, too hard to follow, it will all show up then. Against that, get it right, and it will sound like music to your ears, and that is when you know you’ve nailed the thing.

      • This reminds me of a story. It was 1987 and one of my older brother barely scraped through 9th grade and the summer months were between him and the 10th grade (which in India, starts deciding your career, a lot of times) but only visions of being the next Kapil Dev in his head (looking back on it.. he didn’t have the physique, skills for it, but I suppose every kid in in India at that time aspired to it). So, my eldest brother brought home the text books for 10th grade and asked my 10th grade brother to just copy the course materials on notebooks.. verbatim. So, he did, English, Math, Science, History etc., and at the end of the year, finished first in school. Never thought much of it at that time because studying came easily to me.. but have a totally different view now.

        • Yeah, very standard concept, that. When we read what we are not interested in, the mind is less than half engaged, and retention is piss poor. Try writing out the same thing, though, and you find that you have to focus on each individual word — twice. When the eye reads it and the hand copies it out. Absorption is greater, ditto retention.

          Which is not to say I advocate copying out great works of literature so you can learn to write like Tolstoy, by the way. But the act of writing out other people’s stuff prepares the muscles for when you write your own.

  9. The discussion here is about improving self through dedicated hard work but I am concerned about the advocacy of nurture with a complete disregard to nature which may influence both the educational programs as well as the attitude of parents towards raising offsprings if we ignore that long hours are necessary but surely not sufficient to be a top perfomer. Daniel Coyle and Gladwell are two famous voices amongst others who are making the term ‘10000 hours’ a commonly used term. But in certain fora advocating that Mozart was nothing but a product of sincere hard work, right atmosphere etc leaving no role for talent bothers me. http://wp.me/pRgJz-3Y

    • 10,000 hours is no joke. Even if you spend 4 hours per day for 300 days an year, you need 8 years to reach that figure. I figure only those with some innate fire and talent can reach that figure (and thats the reason why I haven’t reached it..:-)). So, dont worry…no parent can *make* a child to *devote* 10000 hours in something the child doesnt want.

      • Um. Kind of ironic, that math. When I dropped out of college, I bummed around for some years with no clue what I wanted to do with myself. Getting jobs was easy enough. Sticking with it was not — got bored too easily.

        When I finally decided I wanted to be a journalist, it was already 1981. And I then found no one would hire me — they all wanted “literature graduates”. Obstinacy kicked in, and I swore it was either this or nothing. Took eight years, exactly, to get my first gig. During that time, outside of bumming around, playing the occasional gig for sundry bands and stuff, all I did was read, and write, and learn what I could. Now you tell me that is my 10,000 hours, exact. Cool. 🙂

    • Fair enough. It is never been clear to me though why it has to be either/or. To use a personal example, since that is what I know best, my fondness for the language, and any ability I have to express myself in it, started with a father who taught me to read. [I once wrote about that here: http://www.towerofbabel.com/sections/ourmaninhavana/ourmaninbombay/myfathersson/%5D

      It continued with a college professor who inculcated in me a love for the language. And finally, it took a lot of personal sweat to learn the mechanics of the art. Is it nurture? not entirely — my sister grew up in the same atmosphere, yet does not write. Is it hard work? not by itself, no — many work harder.

      • Read the piece, “my father’s son”. Very touching. I am sure a lot of people go through these self-realizations in their lives which awakens the spirit (How do I know this? I have proof from 2 people (me and now, you). True, sometimes this awareness comes a bit late in life but when they do, you start realizing what is it that is important in your own life. Its the penny drop moment, perhaps. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Fluency in writing does help – however you get it. You can also do other writing exercises, like putting a rock on your desk, setting a timer for five minutes, and forcing yourself to write until the timer goes off. (possibly about the rock, or whatever comes to mind.)

    • Sure. Free writing. Another brilliant exercise to develop your writing muscles. With the caveat that once you start writing, you do not stop, ever, till the time limit is reached, even if it means repeating words till you find the next one. The real trick on this one is to write continuously without bothering about stuff like punctuations, grafs, and all of that — a kind of free fall through the consciousness. I used to do this for about 20 minutes every day. Now it is more like, a 30 minute stint once a week, mostly Sunday. Very helpful, in more ways than one

  11. Thanks a lot Prem. I have to got to tell you, I have heard a million times about hardwork (and is convinced about it). But, this is THE BEST line of thought I ever read in that area.

    • Welcome, mate. It comes with one bonus: I know from personal experience, it really works 🙂 I filled entire notebooks with scribbles, finding it out through empirical evidence.

  12. The book is by Malcolm Gladwell & the book Outliers. That is where he talks about the 10,000 hours.

  13. Funnily enough, I used to believe in this muscle memory thing whilst giving my professional exams – that references to sections and clauses of the Companies Act and Income Tax act would flow through one’s finger tips without necessarily having to think about it.

    The point is practice makes perfect, isn’t it? After all, a Roger Federer backhand drive down the line is the result of hours & hours of practice rather than him just playing the stroke in his mind?

    Nice piece and a welcome change from all the cricket shenanigans 🙂

    • Yeah. Exactly. Plus, it speeds up some basic processes. When I started out, I used to use a series of post it notes — a note for each para, quick lines on the salient points you want to make, then stick them up and see if they flow. Keep doing that often enough, and one day you find that you are automatically doing all that stuff in your head, and the writing flows from that point without all the pain. Plenty of examples for why hard work is mandatory — trouble is with folks who refuse to do that work, but want the reward.

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