Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Can Practice Make Perfect? 10,000 Hours Revisited

I return to the idea of practice and perfection periodically here.  Long, longtime readers of this blog might remember this post from 2009 when I first read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers.  That book notes that if you practice anything for 10,000 hours, yes, you will improve.

I thought about that book as I watched the Mepkin Abbey monks play instruments to accompany the liturgy.  I remember when one younger monk took over the guitar playing several years ago.  He clearly had skill to build upon, but his face showed frequent frustration with his playing.

This year was different.  This year, that monk played beautifully, with no frustration that was visible to me.

I differentiate between guitar players by what they do with their strumming hand.  Do they just strum, strum, strum?  Or do they do interesting things, like plucking out individual notes that juxtapose with the chord in interesting ways?

The monk I observed had moved beyond simple strumming.  He didn't show off--no that wouldn't be monklike.  But his music was now full of beautiful counterpoints and flourishes.

It shouldn't surprise me that he's improved.  After all, he practices not only daily, but several times a day. 

And this approach seems revelatory to me.  No, not the idea of practicing daily--I've known that daily practice would improve my technique from my childhood days of practicing--or not practicing--the piano.  I know that if I wrote a poem a day, day after day, my technique would improve.  At the very least, I wouldn't lose so many ideas.

No, what I found revelatory is the fact that the monk doesn't practice for hour after hour throughout the day.  No--he comes to the service, plays the liturgy, and then goes back to work or study.  During some services, he probably plays a total of 20-30 minutes.  But there are plenty of services where he plays for just 5 minutes, and often only one or two chords.

How would our creative output be different if we moved away from thinking that we needed a huge landscape of time to write/paint/cook/sing/play and instrument?  I tend to only write a poem when I know I've got an uninterrupted morning ahead of me.  And lately, I don't have many of those.

But I do have 15 minutes there, 35 minutes there.  And it doesn't really take that much time to jot down a poem or write a few pages of a short story or shape an essay.

What if I thought of my creative practice the way that monks think of worship?  Monks weave worship in amongst the other tasks of the day.  Periodically throughout the day, they return to the chapel to worship.

What would happen if I returned to poetry throughout the day?


Jim Murdoch said...

You might find my latest post on Perfectionism of some interest.

As far as writing goes I’m lucky in that I can write whenever I want. I do have a routine but that tends to be for the ‘other’ writing, the articles and book reviews. Whenever I get an idea for a piece of creative writing I drop whatever I’m doing and start there and then; I’ve learned from bitter experience not to delay. Living with a writer helps because she understands completely: writing first, everything else next.

I, personally, don’t like to work in short bursts. Taking five minutes to jot down notes is fine and sensible but it takes me time to warm up to a proper writing spell and so I work around what works best for me.

Wendy said...

I've been thinking a lot about this and am linking it as I make a stab at writing a liturgy-based poem a week this year.