10,000 Hours

I started reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell yesterday. In the second chapter, Gladwell presents the theory that to reach excellence in any area requires 10,000 hours of practice. He puts forth the cases of Bill Joy, Bill Gates, and the Beatles as illustrations of this theory. Gladwell’s argument is that prodigies are not born, they are made, through hard work and through lucky circumstances. His argument is convincing and started me thinking about what I could possibly have spent 10,000 hours perfecting over the course of my 42 years on the planet. Three possibilities came to mind– one not obviously useful, one alarming, and one surprising.

In the not-obviously-useful category, I believe I have spent over 10,000 hours listening to music. I knew all the words to “American Pie” by Don McLean as a 4-year old, and although I couldn’t sing all of “American Pie” now for love or money, my passion for music has continued unabated since then. I suppose my expert status as a music listener could be put to use were I to pursue a career as a music critic, but that is unlikely to happen. For my own personal benefit, having logged the hours necessary means that I have very clear ideas about what music I like and don’t like. I appreciate music holistically; I often feel that I am listening with my body, mind, and soul. I consider music part of who I am. There was a time, after our daughter was born, that I did not have easy access to music and I felt this lack quite markedly. Without music in my life I do not feel whole. These could all be possible effects of my expert status.

When I began to tally up hours of different pursuits I realized that worry would likely make the 10,000 hour mark. I alternate between external worrying, where I share my fears with others or write them down for myself, and internal worrying: “Is two packs of Christmas cards enough, or should I have ordered three? Did my daughter swallow too much pool water when she went swimming on Tuesday?” Then the worries morph into microworries: “Is swimming too late at night? Should we try to swim on weekends instead?” A fairly minor worry like that can occupy my mind for a good ten minutes; larger worries can loom for days. Thinking about all those hours spent towards becoming an expert worrier was, well, worrisome, and I decided it was time to rebalance the scales. Now it suddenly makes much more sense that to be positive, you have to think positive, because you’re logging the hours. Despite being quite good at worrying, I do also count my blessings. I’ve put in a fair number of hours towards positive, and am now determined to keep at it as diligently as I can.

The most surprising area of expertise I came up with was parenting. I have been lucky enough to be able to stay home with our children since the birth of our son seven years ago, and he did not start preschool until he was three and a half. Even if I were to subtract for naps and TV time, I believe my hours of active parenting now exceed 10,000 hours. Given my expertise as a worrier, I have never felt like an expert mom, but if Gladwell’s theory is correct, then I am an expert, whether I feel like one or not. I found this very comforting. This would also explain why people who have three children frequently say that going from two to three is nowhere near as big of an adjustment as going from one to two; they have already gotten their 10,000 hours in. Of course you could have put in 10,000 hours and gained expertise at a style of motherhood that is less than optimal, but I think I fall into the “good enough” category, as the overwhelming majority of moms do, so to think of myself as an expert at good enough– well, that helped tipped the scales a little further towards positive. Now I think I’ll go put on some music…

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