Sunday, November 23, 2008

What it takes to be a genius

The answer, of course, is very hard work. About 10,000 hours of it, to be more precise.

They say that genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.

Now scientists claim they know just how much sweat and toil this actually is.

It takes someone 10,000 hours of practice to reach the top in their chosen discipline, they say.

Studies suggest that top sportsmen, musicians and chess players have all put in this amount of graft.

Talent and luck are important, but it is practice that makes the difference between being good and being brilliant, say the researchers.

A study at Berlin's Academy of Music looked at violin students who started playing at around the age of five, practising for two or three hours a week. As they grew older the amount of practice increased.

By the age of 20, the elite performers had each totalled 10,000 hours of practice, while the merely good students had accrued 8,000.

Of the 10,000 figure, neurologist Daniel Levitin told BBC science magazine Focus: 'It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all it needs to know to achieve true mastery.'

Extracts from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success published in Focus describe practice as being the key to The Beatles' success.

In their early career the Fab Four would play eight hours a night, seven days a week while in Hamburg.

By the time they hit it big, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times - more than most modern bands play in their careers.

That makes a lot of sense to me. When I look at the various fields in which I've worked, there were always those who had an aptitude for the job - be it computers, or soldiering, or pastoring, or whatever. The aptitude was important for success: but even those with it could be cleanly divided into two groups. One group tried to get past on talent alone, never working very hard at things. The other worked hard to apply their talent, analyze how they were doing things, improve their approach, and then repeat the cycle. The second group did a whole lot better, in terms of career progress, money earned, and the ability to apply their technical and other knowledge and skills, than did the first group.

I've found the same thing in my budding career (at least, I hope it'll turn into a career!) as a writer. Early on, three years ago, I was advised by those who knew the field that the only way to learn to write was to write. "Make mistakes, produce crappy manuscripts, submit them to friends and focus groups, learn why they're bad, improve on them, re-write them, re-submit them, write new stuff . . . just keep writing. Don't bother about publishing the work. This isn't about publication, it's about learning." More than a few of them said to me that I would have to write at least a million words before I'd understand the craft at more than a basic level.

You know what? They were right. I've added up the manuscripts and articles I've written, and they now come to about 1.4 million words (excluding this blog). It's been an immense amount of hard work, but I'm certainly conscious of the improvement over that period, and I know it shows in my manuscripts and articles. I'm looking forward to seeing how things will look after another million words or so!

And, yes, if I add up the hours involved, I've put in about seven or eight thousand already. Being partly disabled, and unable to work at a 'day job', I've applied my time as best I can. It helps that even when the pain's bad, I can lie in bed and tap away on a laptop computer.

Two thousand or so hours to go! I wonder if I'll feel it when genius finally arrives?


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