This image appeared on my Facebook the other day, and I really liked it. (The quote is killer, and it is available at a much more readable size here.) It reminded me of a bit of wisdom I value greatly, and I'll pass that on in this blog post. Lucky you.
I am a huge fan of the many Rules, Laws, and related discrete wisdom chunks you can find on the Internet. Sturgeon's Law. Poe's Law. Rule 34. (NSFW) The Iron Law of Oligarchy. But one of my favorite, as an important lesson about How the World Works, is the 10000 Hour Rule.
I would describe this law thusly:
To master any non-trivial field requires 10000 hours of dedicated practice and study.
Sometimes, this law is stated with "10 years" in the place of "10000 hours." Or, as an old saying elegantly puts it, "You have to write a million bad words before you can write a good one."
Drawing. Writing. Chess. Singing. Tennis. Designing Games. Acting. Golf. Playing the violin. Leatherworking. Poker. In each case, mastery requires work. A lot of it.
What does this law mean? It means that fantasy you have, about picking up a guitar and finding that you have a deep, innate talent for playing and that you're the next Hendrix? It's just a fantasy. Better get practicing, pal. You got 10 long years of work ahead of you. Free lunch? No such thing.
I Will Now Deal With Your Objections
People don't like this law. People hate to be told that they can't have Free Stuff, and gaining mastery without sacrifice is the epitomy of Free Stuff. But there are several obvious objections people come up with to rebut this law. I will dispose of them now.
It Doesn't Take That Long To Master Something! I Can Master Tic-Tac-Toe in a Minute!
That's why I said it takes 10000 hours to master something non-trivial. Obviously, some things are easy, but nobody cares about whether you can do them. Learning to tie your shoes is much simpler than learning to play the violin, but nobody will pay you to watch you tie your shoes.
What About Child Prodigies? Mozart Was Composing Symphonies When He was Four!
Yeah, but nobody wants to hear them. They want to hear what he wrote later. Many, many hours of work later.
Child prodigies exist, and they can do amazing things. However, the main advantage of being a child prodigy is that you get to start putting in your 10000 hours at an early age. You still have to work for it.
But Some People Have Amazing Innate Abilities!
People need to believe that they can possibly have the innate ability to do amazing things. Some sort of magical penumbra that gives you the supernatural ability to write or play baseball or whatever. Not really.
Now don't get me wrong. Some people do have the innate ability to excel at a field. It is the opportunity, resources, and drive to put in the many, long tedious hours mastering a chosen field. It's the ability (the time, money, and energy) to sit down and work. That's the only innate ability that really means something.
So I Just Have To Spend 10000 Hours On Something and I Become Awesome?
No. It has to be 10000 of meaningful practice. Learning new things. Stretching your ability. Occasionally failing, learning from your mistakes, and improving. Repeating the same lame thing for one hour 10000 times will not cut it.
I've Hardly Spent Any Time At All Learning To Do [X], and I'm Amazing At It!
Are you sure? One of the main reasons people are mediocre at a profession or activity is that they lack the ability to recognize when they have done it poorly. One of the main things successful craftspeople and artists have in common is a loathing of their own work.
I'm not saying you aren't that great. Hey, I've never met you. But are you sure?
It's an Unpleasant Rule
The 10000 Hour Rule is about crushing dreams. It's about understanding that there are limits to what you can do in the all-too-short period of time we spend on this Earth. It's about giving people who have achieved mastery the respect they deserve. It's about, before taking on a new task, honestly evaluating whether we can afford to give what it takes to complete it. And it's about forgiving yourself for not being able to play the guitar like Hendrix.
I have a lot more to say on this subject and how it applies to writing computer games. Next time.
(If you're interested in reading more about this stuff, I've heard that Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a good read. I'm not so much a big Gladwell fan, but it's a very interesting topic.)