A Caveat to the 10,000 Hours Rule

The "10,000 Hours" concept has been making the rounds for the last few years, and it has served as justification for writers who spend a quarter to half of their days in the computer chair for years on end. For those of you who aren't familiar with the idea, it was coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Gladwell cited a study that showed the most successful violin players were the ones who practiced the most. The expert musicians were found to have spent approximately 10,000 hours on their craft (averaging out to around three hours a day for 10 years), while very good players merely spent half that time with their instrument. Artists, computer programmers and other professions have applied this concept to their interests, partly to show the novices in each industry just how much time they'll need to put in to reach the highest level possible. 

As an author who has spent about five years writing non-fiction and only a few months on fiction, I'm excited to put in the time necessary to grow. As I was considering the next step after completing my first novel, I realized there should be a caveat to the 10,000 Hours rule. For self-promotion purposes, let's call it the Cohen Caveat. 

When a violin player is just starting out, they're likely to learn the most basic of songs and scales. The musician must learn proper technique and build up the muscles (mental and physical) to play songs like "Three Blind Mice" and "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore." The violin instructor is likely to spend dozens of hours with the beginner on these basic fundamentals. Once the beginner has obtained the skills necessary to master the basics, they will move on to new exercises and more difficult songs over the course of the next few hundred hours. By the time the violinist has reached 1,000 hours, it's likely that they have learned hundreds of songs and countless nuggets of wisdom from their instructors and peers. 

Would the violinist be as good if he or she had spent the entire 1,000 hours learning to perfect "Three Blind Mice?" What if the violinist had been completely self-taught during that time? Would the musician reach the same heights as the violinist who grew, learned and changed from a multitude of songs, techniques and instructors? Withholding some burst of once-in-a-generation natural talent, the answer is likely no. 

Let's switch up this idea with writers for a moment. If you write the same kind of story over and over again, neglect to get editors or beta readers who look over your work and fail to learn from critics and other authors, you may fall into the same trap as the violinist who keeps playing the same basic song over and over again. 

The Cohen Caveat to the 10,000 Hours rule is that you need to make a conscious effort to improve your skills as you log more hours on your craft. As an author, this means you need to find and correct your flaws while looking for ways to improve. Some writers use critique circles, others use books on writing and the rest may take classes or workshops to cultivate those skills. 

My last few months were all about developing a strategy for writing and finishing my first novel. I tuned out a lot of editorial advice during the process, because writing the "perfect first novel" was not my priority. I just wanted to get the sucker done. Now that I've successfully completed that procedure once, I can begin to seek out some methods for becoming a better writer during my many butt-in-chair hours. 

It's going to take a long time until I get to 10,000 hours of fiction writing, and while I'm committed to reaching that number in the next decade, I know those hours won't mean a lot unless I'm actively working to improve myself in the meantime. To sum up the Cohen Caveat in one simple phrase: Work hard, work smart and work to improve. 

Do you already apply the Cohen Caveat to your line of work? Why or why not? Sound off in the comments below. 

Done with A Caveat? Go back to Motivation Techniques. 

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Written by Bryan Cohen

Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on and Facebook.
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