Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Outliers

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

The road to mastery

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“Ten thousand hours,” writes Malcom Gladwell in Outliers, “is the magic number of greatness.” That is, ten thousand hours of hard practice, at minimum, is a necessary prerequisite for success in any field, whether it’s chess, the violin, or even, dare I say it, writing. There’s also the variously attributed but widely accepted rule that a writer needs to crank out a million words, over roughly ten years, before achieving a basic level of technical competence. Both of these numbers are, obviously, sort of bogus—many people will require more time, a few much less. But they’re also useful. Ultimately, the underlying message in both cases is the same: mastery in any field takes years of commitment. And if you need some kind of number to guide you on your way, like Dumbo’s magic feather, that’s fine.

Because the only real path to mastery is staying in the game. Terry Rossio, on his very useful Wordplay site, makes a similar point, noting that when he was just starting out as a writer, he realized that anyone who spent ten years at a job—”grocery clerk, college professor, machinist, airline pilot”—had no choice but to become an expert at it. He concludes:

This insight freed me from the fear of picking a so-called “impossible” job. I could pick any field I wanted, free of intimidation, because it was guaranteed I would become an expert…if I was willing to stick to it for ten years. So I picked the job I really wanted deep in my heart: writing for movies.

The concept of a necessary amount of time to achieve expertise is what inspired the old master/apprentice relationship, in which, for instance, a focus puller would spend ten years observing what a cinematographer did, and at the end, be ready to shoot a movie himself. Writing doesn’t offer such neat arrangements, but it still requires the same investment of time, along with an occasional push in the right direction.

In fact, the best argument for writing full-time is that it allows you to accelerate this process. In the nearly four years I spent at my first job in New York, I wrote perhaps 30,000 words of fiction, only a fraction of which was published. After quitting my job, in the five years since, I’ve written about 600,000 words, not to mention another 100,000 words for this blog—a number that gives even me pause. While not all these words were great, they’re getting better, and close to half are going to end up in print. The number of hours is harder to quantify, but it’s probably something like 7,500, which, combined with the untold hours I spent writing bad fiction earlier in my life, has brought me close to Gladwell’s number. And if I hadn’t spent the past five years doing little else, I wouldn’t even be a third of the way there.

Of course, time by itself isn’t enough. The road to mastery is paved with well-intentioned grinders who work diligently on the same story or comic for years without showing any sign of improving. (The cartoonist Missy Pena memorably described this type to Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club at this year’s Comic-Con. VanDerWerff writes: “Plenty of people who get—and deserve—bad reviews come back year after year after year, never quite getting what it is they could do better, treating the whole thing as a kind of weird theater.”) But even if time isn’t a sufficient condition, it’s at least a necessary one. Every great writer has served an apprenticeship, even if he or she doesn’t like to admit it, and if you haven’t rushed into print, you can always deny it when the time comes. As Hemingway said, when a suitcase filled with his old unpublished stories was lost: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2011 at 9:05 am

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