Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Malcom Gladwell

The 50,000 hours of Yo-Yo Ma

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On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to see Yo-Yo Ma perform Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (You can see a much younger Ma play a portion of the concerto here, with a slight assist from Elmo.) As the most famous of all cello concertos, this is probably the one piece you’d want to see this man perform, if you could only choose one, and he’s played it countless times before. As a result, he’s clearly internalized it about as well as a performer can know a piece of music. All the same, there was nothing rote about his performance—his work was attentive, impassioned, and alive, as it has been without fail for the past thirty years. And faced with such bracing work, delivered with such showmanship and skill, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question, as one of our friends did on the way home: “So how much does Yo-Yo Ma practice these days?”

Which is a great question. (It’s so good, in fact, that “How does much does Yo-Yo Ma practice?” comes up as one of the suggested search results on Google.) A quick look online doesn’t reveal a definitive answer, but the evidence seems to suggest that yes, in fact, he still practices a lot. In a recent talk at DePauw University, Ma refers to the work of Malcolm Gladwell, who famously claims in Outliers that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary to attain expertise in any field. Ma estimates that he practices 10,000 hours every five years, which amounts to about 50,000 hours at the cello over the course of his career. This puts him in the select category of supervirtuosos, and comes out to an average of about five or six hours every day, an amount that doesn’t seem to have diminished over time.

This seems intuitively right to me, especially when you consider that Ma’s hours at the cello don’t just consist of rote rehearsal, but of performance, recording, and teaching. It’s also likely that Ma spends a lot of time thinking about the cello, and music in general, that can’t be classified in ordinary ways. In the career of any artistic master, the line between personal and professional life can’t be clearly drawn, and it often disappears entirely. Ma certainly has a lot of other things going on these days, but I don’t doubt that he still thinks about music for most of his waking hours. His constant engagement and curiosity, even more than his technical virtuosity, account for a great deal of his appeal as a performer, but it’s those reserves of practice, of scales, of muscle memory, that open up such possibilities.

And yet the more I think about Ma, the more I feel that his example isn’t about the importance of practice, but rather the importance of love. Ma is the best in the world at what he does, and he has been amply rewarded for it, but not only has he been inspired to use his gift in surprising ways, it’s clear that he still loves his job. Without that love, none of this would be possible. What Gladwell’s 10,000 rule really means is that if you genuinely love what you do, you’ll end up doing it all the time without even trying. While few of us will ever become virtuosos, we’ll get much further through love than if we were simply counting the hours toward mastery. If Ma still practices a lot, it’s because he clearly wouldn’t have it any other way. Because when you love what you do, 10,000 hours is easy.

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

Of mouses and men

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Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.
Dean Simonton

Malcolm Gladwell’s nifty article on the evolution of the computer mouse in this week’s New Yorker is a terrific read—nobody, but nobody, is better at this sort of thing than Gladwell, which has made him deservedly rich and famous. It’s also, somewhat surprisingly, the most valuable take on the creative process I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve always been interested in the affinities between the artistic process and the work of scientists and engineers, and Gladwell makes the useful point that what most creative geniuses in both fields have in common is their extraordinary productivity. His primary example is Gary Starkweather, the legendary Xerox PARC engineer and inventor of the laser printer, whose creativity was directly linked to the sheer number of his ideas. And in a paragraph that I want to clip out and put in my wallet, Gladwell writes:

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, [Dean] Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.

Gladwell concludes with the Simonton quotation cited at the start of this post, which qualifies, to my mind, as one of the great aphorisms—that is, as a startling reminder of something that should be blindingly obvious. Simonton, incidentally, is a professor of psychology at UC Davis and the author of Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, the subtitle of which refers not to the struggles of genius against genius, as one might think, but to the natural selection of ideas. In nature, natural selection is the result of a Malthusian competition within a large population for limited resources, and it stands to reason that the fittest ideas might arise in a similar fashion. As Simonton says:

Even the greatest creators possess no direct and secure path to truth or beauty. They cannot guarantee that every published idea will survive further evaluation and testing at the hands of audiences or colleagues. The best the creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in the hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time. [Italics mine.]

Which seems obvious enough: most of our greatest artists, from Shakespeare to Picasso, were monsters of productivity, as were nearly all of our great scientists, like Newton. But even more interesting is the point to which Gladwell alludes above, and what Simonton elsewhere calls the “equal odds” rule—that the ratio of total hits to total attempts “tends to stay more or less constant across creators.” Which is to say that if a creative individual of any kind wants to generate more good ideas, the solution isn’t to improve one’s hit rate, but to produce more ideas overall. Productivity is the mother of creativity, by providing the necessary conditions for lasting ideas to emerge. Which is something, I think, that most artists already intuitively grasp. Thanks to Simonton and Gladwell, we’re a little closer to understanding why.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2011 at 9:52 am

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