There is an awesome book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers, and one of the “that-makes-total-sense-so-why-am-I-almost-surprised-to-read-this-in-print” revelations I took away from it was his “ten thousand hour rule.” In summary, Gladwell points out that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice are required to become a master at anything, and he uses numerous examples (most notably Bill Gates, who spent more than 10,000 hours programming before launching Microsoft, and the Beatles, who spent more than 10,000 hours playing together in Europe before launching in America) to prove this point.
If this huge amount of time and effort is such an important difference between someone who is really really really good at something and someone who is great at it, I wondered, how do I stack up? Good news and bad news: I have no idea.
As a singer, there is no way I could tell you how many hours I’ve spent singing, whether for fun or for practice or both. I started in the church children’s choir; let’s assume that was 30 minutes of practice per week for one year for about 1,500 minutes, or 25 hours not counting performances (I’m lowballing all of these estimates). I remember schoolyard singing competitions and that’s probably worth another 10 hours; at least 100 hours from the time I sang in a gospel band and 40 from the Jazz Ensemble at Baythorn and 150 or so from actual in-class singing at the same school over two years. Plus 20 or so for other performances; I was in the arts program, after all. That’s 345 hours before I started high school. Between the Concert Choir and the York Region Children’s Chorus and Voices of Praise, my high school gospel choir, there had to be another 360 hours for a total of 705 hours of instructed singing time, plus performances. I was in university by the time I started with a vocal coach and got thorough one-on-one vocal training … at least 300 hours’ worth … which finally puts me past 1,000. A tenth of the way there.
Since then, I’ve added hundreds more hours in the form of rehearsals for musical theatre productions, a TV shoot, and dozens (maybe hundreds) of live shows. But what about the (literally) countless hours I spent just singing, not gearing up for any particular piece or performance? In the car, in the house when no one else was home (my favourite), doing dishes, leading youth services, sitting in the pews, at auditions, at the club, at fetes, playing mas, playing with my cousins and friends, writing songs, recording songs, teaching songs to other people, watching movies, learning dance routines, waiting to be picked up from work, waiting to fall asleep? And wait, wait — Gladwell points out that the Beatles played those 10,000+ hours together and it made a big difference. Does that mean I have to discount the hours I spent singing with other singers, or singing along to a radio or album? Or only count the hours I’ve spent singing my own songs that I wrote myself?
Okay, maybe it would be easier to count something other than my singing hours. Like writing; I’m better at writing than I am at singing, in my opinion. But when I considered that math, I stopped before even starting. And I concluded, as I have many times before, that my chosen professions are not linear so it usually doesn’t make sense to try to define or measure my progress in a linear way.
I remember feeling vaguely disadvantaged by this when I was younger. People who want to be chefs or architects or marine biologists have narrower career paths, from what I can tell — although I’m sure students in those paths have to stress over their grades way more than I ever did, so I’m not saying they have it easy at all. What I am suggesting is that when you have to learn on the run and make up a lot of it as you go, the trip might take longer than you thought it would and that fact itself is often enough to slow you down a little bit. The goal may be as bright and visible as it ever was, but the mountain range standing between you and it would be less intimidating if you had, say, a clear map. Or a tour guide. Or a clicker to track the amount of steps you’d taken. Because to the naked eye, your goal still looks very, very far away.
Back to the timeline: I wrote my first song in 1996 (it might have been 1995, but again, I’m lowballing so nobody can accuse me of blowing things out of proportion when I’m a big deal) and that’s when I decided to become a famous singer-songwriter. As a kid, I figured I had all the time in the world to get over being shy, learn to sing better, lose weight, master the on-camera interview. Now, as a trained, educated, hungry, hardworking, and (luckily) photogenic adult with hundreds of original songs but no deal, no placements, one incomplete album, and only one radio single, I do have moments where I grope for something “real” to convince me that I’ve made a good amount of progress, distracted though I may have been by things like getting a degree and paying bills. It’s in moments like these that I turn to rules like Gladwell’s, and then turn away again. After all, I’m not yet convinced that I need to become a “master” pop artist, and quite frankly I don’t want to become quite as big as Bill Gates if I have a choice in the matter. So 10,000 hours, while they will accumulate in time, really don’t need to serve as a marker of how far along the path I’ve come.
But it’s good to remind myself that I still have some walking to do.