If it’s a writing test, you better write

I recently heard a colonel tell a story about a young airman who complained about a running test that must be passed. The airman was worried that he was not prepared for the test because he did not regularly run. The colonel told the young man, when he didn’t pass the running test: “What did you expect? When you know you’re going to take a running test, you need to run.”

For those of us who read and write for a living, this is an alien experience. Even if Hannibal and his elephants were hot on my trail, I wouldn’t run. If I was going to miss a flight and have to wait a month to catch another one, I wouldn’t run. If I was late to an audience with the Queen of England, I wouldn’t run. It is now undignified for me to do such a thing. That sort of locomotion is indecent–but for the warfighter, I get it. They need some physical fitness and stamina. I bet I could pass a writing test. I can write on the computer for hours and hours and hours. I didn’t say it would be good, but I could do it.

Okay. I might run from this.

I get the metaphor inherent in this story of failure to prepare for a running test. It struck me. I wanted to be a writer from an early age, got alienated from the quest (seriously side-tracked), and then figured out: if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write. I also needed to do a lot of reading. And reading in the genre I proposed to write in I found was essential: essay, short story, haiku, limerick, sonnet, lesson, unit, semester-long or quarter-long course, whatever. I needed to know the genre inside out, make it mine, and then write in it.

I knew what I wanted and thinking about it wasn’t enough, I had to get out and run, I mean, write. So I did. Of course, if I hadn’t decided to write, I wouldn’t be able to now. And this is precisely why I do not run. I do not practice running. I don’t like it, but I also don’t aspire to be great at it, and fortunately, no teaching job I’ve ever encountered required me to pass a running test. But the metaphor fits. If you want to be good at something, do it a lot, learn to do it well, and then practice being good.

I haven’t read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for a couple of years, though I recently dipped back into it for a writing project. In fact, Gladwell’s writing reminds me of Charles Dickens in some ways–whose works I’m diving back into this term (so delightful). I just read right along absorbing and remaining riveted until I realize I’m nearly finished and that I’ve been taken on a deep and wondrous journey. Gladwell is brilliant (Dickens, too). The colonel’s story reminded me of one of my favorite chapters in Outliers (if you haven’t read it, you must) on expertivity and how many hours it takes to get that. (Gladwell’s not the most dynamic speaker, but he’s got great ideas: see his TED talk about the Norden bombsight and his talk on spaghetti sauce.)

And now in a most horrific solipsistic maneuver, I’m going to refer back to some writing I did about this topic a couple of years ago, but it’s so perfect now, I’m just giving into the impulse to mostly take from that moment and edit just a bit. I was tempted to just use a few phrases, and then a little more, and then most of it, and so I caved. (I align myself with Oscar Wilde here and his thoughts on temptation: “I can resist everything except temptation” and “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”)

In the second chapter of Outliers (2008), Gladwell explains that great success, spectacularity (my word choice), comes from long-term commitment: in fact, at least 10,000 hours of time spent on task. (If you want to be a great runner, or pass a running test, you need to run!) (And dig this moment of serendipity: Gladwell’s latest blog post is about a race he ran when he was 14 years old.)

He writes, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” To illustrate his point, he uses several examples, but the most intriguing is his exploration of the Beatles and 10,000 hours. Before they hit it big, the Beatles found work in Hamburg, Germany where they performed live an estimated 1,200 times before 1964 (sometimes they played eight hours, seven days a week). To crunch numbers a bit: if they averaged eight hours for each of those performances, the hour count is at 9,600. This doesn’t account for other focused practice or experience. Surely, if we looked, and not very hard, we’d find another 400 hours along the way to push the Beatles well over the 10,000 hour mark. As Gladwell points out, some bands never perform live that many times in a career. He cites Philip Norman, a Beatles biographer, to support his conclusion about the band:

They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back…. They learned not only stamina. They had to learn an enormous amount of numbers—cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock and roll, a bit of jazz too. They weren’t disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.

Outliers is the third of Gladwell’s books which looks at the world from an unusual perspective. This one focuses on how success happens, how some people “win” and some people don’t—and why. He looks at factors such a birth, location, practice, and support networks. A fast read, this book is ultimately satisfying because having successfully spent some time reading it, you may be on your to 10,000 hours as an expert reader. (And that was also something I aspired to become as a young woman–an expert reader. I wanted a job reading–guess what I got? A job reading and writing. And this is only a smidgen of what I write.)

Gladwell’s second book, Blink (2005), concentrates on “the power of thinking without thinking.” This title refers to how choices are made “in the blink of an eye” by those who have the knowledge, the experience, the guts, or the need to make split-second decisions. Gladwell shares jaw-dropping examples of rapid cognition, what that means, and its implications of “blink” decisions gone wrong. One of the lessons of this work, he writes, is this:

Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. We can prevent the people fighting wars, or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.

Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point (2000), suggests in the sub-title that “little things can make a big difference.” In this book, he explores “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire”; the book is a “biography of an idea.” He pulls from examples as widely disparate as sales of Hush Puppies shoes to criminal activity to educational television shows to the kinds of people who are at the forefront of tipping (connectors, mavens, and salesmen). Essentially, he is writing about trends and how we can comprehend their trajectories:

[T]he best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking… or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics.

After a couple hundred pages of lucid, cogent argument, who could fight against this notion: “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do”?

All three of these books were number one on the New York Times bestseller list. They are thoughtful, engaging works that pull together ideas and information in unusual ways. Read these if you want to think and be able to use that thinking to grow your mind, or, at the least, take part in toe-tingling intellectual banter. Some critics have argued against Gladwell’s theories—but isn’t that the point to theoretical discussion, the reason we take a stance on any issue? Everyone gets a chance to talk. Gladwell talked; now let’s hear what some other folks think. Get in on the conversation. And while you’re ordering his books online for the Kindle app in your iPad, check out the below, mind-blowing numbers.

After all this success, after years of writing, and just these three books, how does Gladwell himself stack up to his 10,000-hour rule?  How many hours has he written? Let’s look at some numbers, just to see where he is on the scale of 10,000 hours to spectacularity.

As a bestselling book author:

  • Three best-selling books (320+277+238=835 pages), at 15 hours per page (I’m probably grossly underestimating, but we’ll go with this for the sake of counting the beans including planning, research, writing, revising, copyediting, printing, and so on–all the beans, in other words).
  • For the math impaired (which would be me these days): that’s 12,525 hours.
  • So we know he’s got more than 10,000 hours writing books (at least 12,525).

As a staff writer for The New Yorker (since 1996):

  • 80+ articles in The New Yorker in 13 years (5,000+ words per article=400,000 words).
  • Let’s say there’s 250 words on a page: that’s 1,600 pages.
  • If each page takes 10 hours (we’ll go with less than for a book): we have 16,000 hours (and again, I’m probably underestimating to some extent given fact-checkers, designers, copyediting, research, writing, and all that–not that he’s doing all the work, but still, it needs to be counted as his learning experience, too–all writing is really collaborative).
  • Again, he’s well over his 10,000 hour mark, in magazine writing this time.

He writes on his web site that he is contractually obligated to produce 40,000-50,000 words per year for The New Yorker.  Looks like he’ll keep getting better at what he’s already very good at (and I’ll have to work harder to find ways to end sentences without prepositions, or trying to write my way out of it by sticking in long parenthetical notes).

Imagine how many more hours we could add if we counted the nine years Gladwell wrote for The Washington Post. 10,000 more hours? At least.

Malcolm Gladwell has spectacularity. Without a doubt. Did his first three books reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list?  Yes. How often does that happen? Ask J.K. Rowling and Tom Clancy. (And he has a fourth out, What the Dog Saw, which is a compilation of his articles in The New Yorker.) Has he worked 10,000 hours to be good? Yes. And much more than that. Has he written thousands of hours once he was good? Yes. Has he continued to practice, even now? Yes. He’s still a staff writer for The New Yorker. He writes on his blog site. He speaks to a wide variety of audiences (millions through TED.com). He practices wordsmithing all the time. He’s got spectacularity. He oozes expertivity. 10,000 hours worth of both, times two, maybe, times three.

If you decide you have to read Gladwell, begin with Outliers–it’s a great story of success. And I have to say it’s fairly easy to read a book about success by a man who’s done something unusually successful. Now for the hard part: get out your calculator and see what you’ve spent 10,000 hours doing. It’s not too late to get good, or even great, at something that matters to you and practice to stay that way. Or I suggest calculating how many hours you’ve spent on the Internet in the last couple of years. Feeling better now? I’m feeling medium.

Oh, and if you have a writing test coming up, you know what to do.

(Image source: 2nd look)

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Filed under A Writing Test, Interdisciplinariness, Victorians Everywhere

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