Last year I read a book called "Outliers" by the sociological writer Malcolm Gladwell. The book examines the factors that contribute to extraordinary levels of success. It is a fascinating read (as other Gladwell books generally are too) and one of the factors that he keeps returning to is what he calls the "10,000 hour rule". This says that in order to truly master a particular field you need to have 10,000 hours of experience in it.
Tuesday, 13 July 2010
He gives numerous examples. The two that stick in my mind are Bill Gates and The Beatles.
In the case of Gates because of his specific family connections he was able to get programming time on a computer overnight in the early 1970s which he did for a number of years. Of course he needed the drive and commitment to take advantage of this opportunity that virtually no other teenagers in the world at that time would have had. It meant that by the time he dropped out of college to set up Microsoft he had at least 10,000 hours of programming time under his belt, far more than pretty much all of his contemporaries. So far from Gates being particularly extraordinary it was more a combination of drive, natural talent and a great opportunity.
In the case of The Beatles, when they broke through in 1963 they had been playing together since 1956 as first The Quarrymen and then from 1960 The Beatles. They had tonnes of experience not least from repeated residencies at a club in Hamburg where they would play for hours on end. All this experience ultimately led to them honing their skills to the point where they were one of the best bands in the world just at the point when they hit the big time. Like Gates they were very talented but it was a combination of that and all that experience peaking at the right time that really helped push them into the big time.
Anyway, I was thinking about how this 10,000 hour rule might apply to my political blogging. Before I continue I should make it clear that I am not saying I am the Bill Gates or John Lennon of political blogging (that's for others to say ;))! There is just something about Gladwell's rule that seems to chime a little with my experiences.
I first got interested in politics in 1990 around the age of 16. My family were always interested in political events when I was growing up (from the left of the spectrum) and I then studied British Government and Politics at A-Level. Since then I have been a fairly avid follower of politics in the media and through things like reading political biographies etc. It has varied over the years. For example when I was at university I didn't usually get a newspaper but I did regularly watch the political TV programmes and listen to some of the radio programmes. Once I graduated in 1995 and then got into the world of work I did more regularly read newspapers and continued to follow politics without getting directly involved myself. By 2000 with the advent of the internet I was able to start reading more political coverage and opinion online which I generally did at lunchtime and in the evenings. Once blogging really got going a few years back I also started reading them.
So by the time I started political blogging myself in 2008 I had 18 years experience of reading about and (closely observing) politics, especially political opinion pieces of varying sorts in my spare time. I reckon if you added all of that time up it is probably not far off 10,000 hours. Admittedly most of it was just absorbing the information rather than getting actively involved or even writing anything myself but for example I must have read thousands of political opinion pieces from across the political spectrum over the years.
And what I have found is that once I actually started trying to write opinion pieces myself it seemed to come fairly naturally. I appeared to understand how to structure pieces of varying lengths with little tricks like making references to analogies or similar situations to the thrust of the piece and then back referencing this at the end to round it off. Nobody has ever taught me this, I have just picked it up by osmosis (of course some will say this is a lazy hack way of doing things but hey ho). I have also closely followed political events for the last 20 years. It means that often I can draw parallels or make comparisons between things that I actually remember happening.
I should clarify that I am really not trying to blow my own trumpet here. I am certainly not the best political blogger out there by any stretch. There are plenty who I consider far better than me and to whom I aspire to get anywhere near! I am merely trying to highlight how something that appeared at first to come naturally to me, in the end is far more likely to have been a result of many years of study and exposure to the world of politics and opinion. Throughout those years I had no idea that I was on a path that would lead to me becoming a political blogger. Indeed there was no such thing until a few years ago! Instead it was just something I was/am passionate about and slowly but surely I have built up a wealth of experience and knowledge that I regularly find myself drawing on.
I do think there is something in Gladwell's rule. I have also noticed in my professional career as a software engineer that there was a point about 8 years in when I really hit my stride and was finding that the software development challenges I faced were being solved more quickly. If you look at the amount of time I had spent programming professionally in my career it would have been hitting around 10,000 hours at roughly that point.
I am sceptical enough to know that this rule will not always apply. I also expect there are people who are just naturally gifted and talented at certain things and although putting in a good amount of effort will help they will already have a head start.
It's nice for the rest of us to know however that dividends can be reaped by putting in the effort, even if we don't always know that is what we are doing.