Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Political blogging and the 10,000 hour rule

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.

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.


Chris Wilson said...

I'm a pretty big fan of Gladwell, Tipping Points is a pretty good book too.

Charlie Beckett said...

As with most of Gladwell's dictums, this is largely guff. So people who are more dedicated and devote a substantial amount of time to something will be better at it? No sh*t Sherlock.
Good luck with the blog,
Charlie Beckett

sanbikinoraion said...

I'm in a similar position, Mark - a longtime political junkie - but I can't even manage to get around to writing my blog and when I do I am awful at structuring posts. So I think that there is some real writing skill in there on top of all of the informational expertise.

Comment karma: "Boorke".

Anonymous said...

"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."

Perhaps this could be best applied to driving - might help knock sense into those young drivers who pass their test and think they know it all when in reality they've only just started to learn...

Alix said...


"but I can't even manage to get around to writing my blog and when I do I am awful at structuring posts."

There's the key, though. It's not just the political nous that you need your 10,000 hours for - the writing bit does as well. It is tricky to get over that hurdle where you think "Gr, this is rubbish", but actually (a) all the difficulties you're having are invisible to everyone else and (b) every single word you write is getting you closer to being really good at it. I wrote on paper for years before I went near a blog, and still do. This has the great advantage that no-one can see you being bad :)

Alix said...

My other half has a theory about English football that relates to this (or he passes it off as his own, at any rate). Unlike the great majority of international footballers, most of ours only speak English. So they rarely go and play for foreign teams, and it's quite a big thing when they do.

Most other countries export their footballers all the time. This means that more players in those countries get their 10,000 premiership-quality hours, because some are overseas and leave space for the next generation to come up at home. We're a net importer of footballers, so a smaller number of our best people acquire their 10,000 hours, hence the overall choice is poorer. (Staying at home also, of course, may make them more insular and less exposed to how many good people there are in the world.)

Paulie said...

Derek Draper provides a good cautionary tale on what can go wrong if you haven't clocked up your hours....

sanbikinoraion said...

The flipside, Alix, is that English footballers end up playing against much-higher quality opponents than they might do elsewhere. So you might expect that to ameliorate the import glut somewhat.

My excuse is that smart people don't play football in this country; they become doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on, meaning that the England team is invariably composed of stone-cold idiots because that's all we've got.