Tuesday, March 24, 2009

10,000 Hours of Practice--Talent vs. Persistence

Last night, I read much of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. It's not a complicated book, but these days, I find myself profoundly grateful when I can just focus on a book for longer than 15 minutes. Some days, I have so little time, but some days, I just feel distracted and fragmented (do I blame this on my Internet habits? yes, to some extent).

Gladwell claims that what separates the good from the very, very good is practice. He claims that 10,000 hours of practice is what separates the good from the very, very good.

I've had this talent vs. practice argument with students through the years. They claim that they have certain talents, like drawing, and they shouldn't be expected to develop others, like writing. They claim that if you don't have innate talent that practice will get you nowhere--a reason they offer for why they shouldn't be expected to take Math classes.

I disagree, and it's heartening to read Gladwell, who would also disagree. He points out that cultures that we think of as good at math aren't innately good--but the culture rewards hours of hard work and persistence. He points out that when we look at any genius, we tend to believe any variety of narratives (the poor kid pulling himself up from his bootstraps, the young girl who sits down at the piano and creates symphonies, even though she's never played a piano before), but in fact, geniuses have put a lot of time in practicing their craft, be it computer programming, math, music, or quilting (Gladwell doesn't mention quilting, but I couldn't resist).

I've had a similar experience with drawing, which my Art students refuse to acknowledge. I used to claim that I couldn't draw, and then I spent a year trying to draw, training myself to see. I practiced. I got a lot better.

My students believe in their talent. They don't believe that they're talented because they work at it. They discount all the hours they've spent with a pencil in their hand.

This morning, I tried to apply the theory to my poetry. How many hours have I practiced my poetic craft? Would I get better if I worked more hours each day?

I started calculating: an hour a day, 365 days a year--how many years until I'm at 10,000 hours? And how many hours have I already put in? Do those count? Or is it better to have an intense time of practice?

And can the middle-aged brain still improve with more hours of practice? I think so. In the fall of last year, I started writing poems in form and/or rhyme, and rewriting poems into ones that had form and/or rhyme. Why did I do this? I was trying to get enough poems together to have a book to send to Steel Toe Books during their first call for formalist manuscripts; when I first read the call, it was 2 months until the deadline, and I counted up my possible poems, and decided that if I applied myself, I had a shot at having a manuscript ready.

I don't usually work in form or rhyme. Yet, as I immersed myself, I found that it came easier. When I sat down to write something new, it came out in sonnet form. It was exhilarating. And scary.

Another intriguing point from Gladwell: a lot of the geniuses he talked about had logged their 10,000 hours during adolescence and early adulthood. In my younger years, I used to be able to immerse myself in something for weeks or months. As a bored teenager, I wrote novels for fun in my free time and during down times at school, of which there were many. As a sometimes-frazzled woman in early midlife, I find that my immersion ability comes and goes in cycles, depending on what's going on at work.

And I don't even have children. I have no idea how my artistic cycle would fluctuate with more family responsibility, but I suspect I'd feel that I had even less time for my creative pursuits. My 10,000 hours of practice would get even more spread out.

Or maybe we'd sit around as a family and write poems together.


Serena said...

I like this notion of practice improving talent...I can attest that it does work. I had no talent for math, but the more I worked at it in school, the better I became and eventually when I was forced to take Algebra 1 again after transferring from one college to another, I aced the course and rarely had to do the homework...the professor sent the troubled students to me for tutoring. Funny how that works.

I think I will take your advice and set aside at least one hour per day for poetry writing. I need to have my manuscript finished by the end of the year. I want and will accomplish this goal I've had rattling around for the last several years.

Thanks for the great, inspiring post.

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

i don't know if this works for poetry, which i differentiate from clever word play. One of the 64 arts of being a Woman (my caps, of course) is the art of repartee, riddling, rhyming, all rolled into one.
i think if one were to practice (gender not an issue), one would get better at such an art. but is that all there is to poetry? the craft?
if one must practice poetry, one must practice the art of being human.
no shortcuts allowed!
sorry for this long post!