10,000 hours and The Coming Online Talent Explosion

About half way through Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success and, if he’s thesis and the research it is based on is valid, I think we are in for some exciting times in the online writing world.

Gladwell talks about how it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in area, subject or practice. Referencing a study of musicians that sought to determine how many “natural” talents their were, Gladwell notes that:

“The curious thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals” – musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. What’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”(H/T Tim Finin)

How much harder?

“In those first few years everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week. But around the age of 8 real difference started to emerge. the sudtents who would end up as the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else. 6 hours a week by age 9, 8 hours a week by age 12, 16 hours a week by age fourteen and up and up until by the age of 20, they were practicing – that is purposefully, and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better – well over 30 hours a week. In fact by the age of 20 the elite performers had totalled 10,000 hours  of practice over the course of their lives, by contrast the merely good students had totaled 8000 hours and the future music teachers had totaled just over 400 hours. “

He then cites example after example of this trend. 10,000 hours – usually attained only after about 10 years – is a magic number.

Well, two years ago my friend Taylor and I wrote this piece about the 10th anniversary of blogging. Since the blogosphere is only about 12 years old there are not that many people who’ve been blogging for 10 years – moreover, the scant few who have are most likely to be those who work, or and deeply interested, in Information Technology. If Gladwell is correct it means that virtually all bloggers  (self-included, only 3.5 years) and especially those without an IT background, are likely well short of the 10,000 hour mastery threshold.

This is exciting news. It means that despite the already huge number of great blogs and bloggers we are probably only experiencing a fraction of what is to come. Given bloggings exponential growth I’d wager that the world is about 2-5 years away from an explosion in writing talent. Today all sorts of people who would never have previously written are writing blogs. Many are terrible, some are good, and fewer still are excellent. But what is important is that they are gaining experience and learning. With more people reaching that 10,000 hour mark, more talented people will also reach it – consequently, we should see more gifted writers. Better still, it is possible their talent will be restricted to blogs – but perhaps not. As these writers get more recognized some they will shift to books, or magazines or whatever new medium exists by then.

All in all, the first half of the 21st century could be one of the greatest for writers – and as a result, for readers from thereafter too. The internet’s writing renaissance could be upon us soon.

11 thoughts on “10,000 hours and The Coming Online Talent Explosion

  1. Jeremy Vernon

    I think it important here to contextualize the study Gladwell uses. Ericsson et al examined music because of the very qualities it exhibited in terms of the proposed notion of “genius.” Inspired, in part, by research done on savants who displayed seemingly super-human capacity for musical performance or wax-sculpture or memorization (cf. Rain Man).Music, like mathematics is something that children exhibit a gift for very early on. It was supposed that this gift then translated to that binary distinction between “talented” and “untalented.” That motivated Ericsson to interrogate this accepted wisdom and his discovery of the 10,000 hour principle.The issue isn't with his findings, its with Gladwell's generalization of the phenomena – especially with cognitively dissimilar tasks. There is little evidence to support that 10,000 hours will make you good at everything – sometimes it will take much less and others much more. There's nothing magical about this number. Without getting over-deep into the brain science, the 10,000 hour principle seemingly applies to those aspects of so-called S1 cognition, aka “know-how” or procedural cognition. Such as tying your shoe laces, swinging a baseball bat, typing etc. Declarative or representational knowledge (such as structuring a logical argument or generating and communicating a new idea) does not seem to be affected by the 10,000th hour of exposure. It can't help but aid it – but there is nothing determining 10,000 hours or 10 years or any magical arbitrary length of time as “key” to making one more knowledgeable, critical or innovative – which are all largely S2.The fundamentals of the argument were essentially outlined by Henry James – and the data still seems to support the gist of his distinction between “knowledge” and “sagacity”. While improving the efficiency of the procedural aspects of blogging through continued exposure will make bloggers more “efficient” it does not follow that they would be “better.” The same is true of musicians (just ask my dad).There is a case to be made about S1, relevance realization and expertise (cf. Simon & Chase's chess experts and Daniel Dennett's work) but it's far and away more complex than Gladwall erroneously simplifies.

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  3. Éric

    Good for writers? Actually, I'd say it means there will be more people in the writing talent pool who have experience with writing for little to no pay. That'll just bring down writers' fees, making those who actually are professional writers poorer and less likely to work. I'd say that is bad for writers, but good for people who want to read quality stuff for free.

  4. neil

    But being a good blogger isn't just about writing good. It's also about subject material, insight, interest, etc. (maybe you're lumping these all together). For example, this post had two typos, but I still enjoyed it!

  5. david_a_eaves

    Eric – touche! You might be right – the benefits of more good writers will not be distributed evenly (although they aren't now either) instead it will be a power law distribution with the very best making vastly more than even the average writer – who may be writing for free (like me).The other piece is that more better writers might stimulate more demand – which could help offset some of the problem you highlight.At a more basic point you are write though – the real benefit will be for readers and, I might argue, society in general.

  6. david_a_eaves

    Agreed – despite Jeremy's pessimism about the 10,000 hour argument even if we accept it as a proxy for expertise, I should be arguing that not only might we get better bloggers, but also bloggers who are more and more knowledgeable.Also, I apologize for the typos. If you see them please do send me an email noting them or… register for goosegrade and not them using that. I'm eternally grateful to the community of readers who are already using that feature.

  7. Tariq

    Hi David,I think there needs to be a distinction made, that 10,000 hours of anything (assuming Gladwell is correct) isn't going to push anyone to the top, or make anyone an expert in anything. I think it requires mindful practice, and a desire to learn and improve that makes the difference – not just the act of doing for a long period of time. I can blog for 10,000 hours, but if I take no interest in the “craft”, I will not necessarily improve simply by virtue of the fact that I am blogging. I would venture a guess that those bloggers out there who are mindful about their craft are fewer in number. That said, I'm not all pessimism and gloom. Blogging presents a tremendous low-to-no-cost opportunity for anyone to enter the world of writing, should it interest them, and develop their skills. (I do think it's safe to say that this is implicit in your post, but I hate to assume, and think it is an important distinction that should be explicit…)Tariq

  8. david_a_eaves

    Tariq – I completely agree with you. Indeed in the piece I note that “With more people reaching that 10,000 hour mark, more talented people will reach that mark – consequently, we could see more gifted writers.”You are dead right in noting that not everyone who blogs (or does anything) for 10,000 hours will automatically be good at it but that, like the musicians, you must have passion and care and what to really practice and dive deeper into your craft. The point is, that far more people are able to write for an audience than ever before (by orders of magnitude) so my hope is that whereas before the web maybe 1000 people a year got to reach that 10,000 hour threshold, with blogs my hope is that that number might become 10,000…

  9. Hilary Henegar

    A fair weather writer myself, my ego doesn't want me to admit that perhaps we need to let go of the idea that most people can't write and embrace this democratization of writing and discourse. Blogs are an interesting medium in that there are no entry barriers; anyone with access to a computer and some times on their hands can practice blogging. And never in my life have I heard so many people admit freely that they themselves are writers than in the last five years especially. Perhaps we'll see the broader implications of this in coming years.

  10. Misha

    My own .02 on 10k:10,000 hours always seems to me like the minimum groundwork specifically for people wanting to make significant contributions in well-trod fields, like classical music, or physics, or tennis. I think there’s also a lot to be said for people who spend 1,000 hours (or less) doing something new or risky. I’m thinking of a specific example, though sadly I’ve forgotten all the relevant details. It was something I saw in a documentary about the early days of hip-hop, I think, and they were talking to someone who was a pretty important guy really early on in terms of redefining what sort of music you could make with a turntable, before people really thought of a turntable as something you make music with. He said something like “I’d come home every day, and just practice, for two, sometimes three hours. And I thought, before I really showed myself, I wanted to know I was the best. So I practiced every day for a *year*, and when I came out, I really blew people away”. I remember seeing that and thinking: if you practiced the violin for 2 hours a day for a year, when it was over, you’d barely even qualify as a beginner. But this guy had the courage/vision/craziness to invest that sort of time not is something old and proven like playing the violin, but something new and risky, like trying to make music with a record player. And so he ends up as a person who makes significant contribution in the history of a really important musical form.I have a lot of respect for the 10.000 hour guys, but I think there’s also genius to be found in the people who make wagers of smaller number of hours on longer odds. (And it seems to be the internet is full of that kind of genius – People who try something crazy and new that turns out to be great…)

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