Tag Archives: talent

If 10,000 Hours of Practice Makes You More Creative, What Does 20,000 Do?

The idea that talent isn’t inborn, that you have to practice something constantly and deliberately for 10,000 hours before you master it, makes intuitive sense. It’s especially appealing for the arts. Mozart wasn’t a prodigy, the theory goes, he just crammed in 10,000 hours of practice before his 19th birthday. Nearly every filmmaker, artist and writer talks about having a passion for their medium astonishingly early in life (M. Night Shyamalan and PT Anderson, for example, were both making  movies when they were still eating peanut butter out of the jar).

Again, this makes sense. The arts have technical and craft-like aspects, and you gotta master the tools before you use them to make something that’s never existed before.

But I’m interested in what happens after you’ve done your 10,000 hours, and you keep practicing. Why do artists peak and decline?

I can see how physical or technical skills (sports, surgery) would continue to develop until they are hindered by the body’s decreasing ability to put them to use. Michael Jordan may have decades more skill than LeBron James, but the 49-year-old body simply won’t collaborate with the brain the same way as a 27-year-old’s will.

But creativity is different. You don’t need physical skill to be a writer, painter, composer or singer. So why do so many of our best examples of the 10,000 hour rule show such marked decline in the quality of their output as they get older?

Last week I read a couple reviews of Tom Wolfe’s new book, ‘Back to Blood’:

Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status. His own prose is monotonous in the same way. It confuses the depiction of strength with the energy of verisimilitude.

Wolfe is 81, and an absolute skyscraper in the world of journalism. He invented, or at least perfected, the art of longform feature reporting, and every month GQ and Vanity Fair print ripples of his voice and perspective. Yet as he’s gotten older,  his output has (OK, arguably) become repetitive and extravagant, less a man examining the world around him than a man staring at his own infinite reflection in a bathroom mirror.

This week I’ve also been listening to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ basically on repeat, since it just got rereleased. It’s self-evidently the best thing ever, and Simon has (again, arguably) never made anything that holds up so well since.

Across the creative spectrum, artists generally produce works of decreasing interest as they get older. From Bob Dylan to Clint Eastwood to Claude Monet, artistic output tends to peak—sometimes early, sometimes late—then steadily decline. It’s as if, like an aging body, an aging brain no longer has the strength to throw as many spears through the fog.

I wonder if creativity, perhaps distinctly from sports or technical skills, is a kind of multiplication. It only manifests when talent breeds with inspiration, desire for risk, engagement with the outside world. Maybe it’s not the talent that diminishes, but the appetite for novelty.

Or maybe it doesn’t diminish at all. Maybe Tom Wolfe and Paul Simon are actually producing better and better work, they’re just becoming increasingly nuanced and complex as their talent develops, and are no longer embraced by the ‘tl;dr’ heathen mainstream. Their best years weren’t a creative peak so much as an extended overlap with the tastes and desires of the masses, and now they’ve diverged.

Or maybe—I hate this option—aging simply wears out the mind as profoundly as it does the body. The brain becomes so unmalleable as it ages that it can’t make intellectual jump shots anymore. Tom Wolfe today is unable to write a great novel just like Sandy Koufax is unable to pitch a no-hitter. The brain and the body are both exhausted, just one is more visible than the other.

Or maybe I’m full of shit! And thousands of works have come screaming forth from their creators’ autumnal decades, I just haven’t noticed. Maybe Mozart and Cobain and Hendrix, had they lived, would have produced peak after peak, their talent aging like Italian cheese.

Like all broad human phenomena, though, I’m firstly interested in how it applies to me. I don’t think I’ve done anything for 10,000 hours, much less 20,000. I’d better get started! As my body begins its earthward descent, I want to make sure I reach a few highs in case it takes my brain with it.

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Filed under Books, Journalism, Personal, Serious

‘The almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else’

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I randomly came across this article by David Foster Wallace today. It’s about the weird universe inhabited by professional tennis players, and elite performers more generally.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera.

But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.

Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence.

An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

I wasn’t in the U.S. for the Michael Phelps hype cycle last Olympics, but I remember a friend telling about what a weird specimen he was in ‘Today’ show interviews and news articles. His range of experience was so limited (‘I wake up, I swim, I go to bed’) that his interviewers struggled to find anything to ask him about. Apparently they just asked him over and over again about what he eats. ‘Eleven pancakes for breakfast?! That’s amazing!’ What else are you  gonna ask a dude who spends 10 hours a day swimming back and forth?

I listened to a podcast last night by the author of a book called Talent is Overrated. Apparently the scientific evidence shows pretty incontrovertibly that there’s no such thing as ‘talent’ as such, only practice. Apparently if you take anyone who is at the top of their field (Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett), and you find that they spent thousands of hours of time deliberately honing their skills.

Here’s an article by the author of the book:

You do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don’t exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that’s demanding and painful.

[…] The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

It’s sort of appealing to think that you’re just 10,000 hours of practice away from that hole in one, or that slam dunk, or that first million. What I’m amazed at, though, isn’t that people have the time or the dedication to develop their skills to such an incredible extent. It’s how you have to give a shit to do what they’ve done.

I’m sure that if I spent two hours a day for the next 10 years working on my jump shot, I’d be really good at it. The problem is, I really don’t give a shit if I can make a jump shot. When I think about it, though, I’ve spent probably 1,000 hours in the last five years going running, and have deliberately tried to get my 10k time below 40 minutes. Running in a big circle is just as arbitrary as putting a ball through a little hoop, yet one of them is a genuine source of stress (and stress relief) and the other one is something I care about as much as yodeling, or Yatzee, or anything else I end up doing once a year and giving no further thought to.

Whenever I’m confronted with genuine greatness, it’s the bottomless giving a shit that really astounds me. On your 18th year of hitting golf balls every. fucking. day, how do you go to the driving range again? When you’re on the second-to-last chapter of your 898-page deconstructivist masterpiece, how do you not think ‘Is it really worth all of this?’

I’m too old and atheist to think that I’ll discover some hidden talent and become the Tiger Woods of billiards or something. But I still hope I find something I give enough of a shit about that I don’t mind doing it every day.

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