Malcolm Gladwell on what makes a great performer: 10,000 hours

"A gift or hard graft?" is an extract from "Outliers: The Story Of Success," the new book by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, he says it's hard work that sets great performers apart from the pack.

The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. What's more, the people at the very top don't just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

No wonder Jerry Seinfeld says to "just work." If you want to be a master, you've got to do it over and over.

For comedy, number of times on stage might be a better measure than number of hours. Something like you need to perform on stage at least 1,000 times before you can be a great comic. (And even that might be on the low side.)

The excerpt also features this interesting bit on The Beatles:

John Lennon, in an interview after the Beatles disbanded, talking about the band's performances at a Hamburg strip club called the Indra: "We got better and got more confidence. We couldn't help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we'd only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing."

...All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don't perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.

This struck a chord: "It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over." You could say the same thing about shitty shows or open mics. To get over at these gigs, you really have to bring something. You've got to be energetic or in the moment or have a really strong bit. In front of a packed house, on the other hand, you can get away with slacking a bit more. The crowd will provide the juice.

In fact, I sometimes wonder about comics who get a break and wind up doing packed gigs or touring right out of the gate. Like maybe they miss out on the foundation you get when you spend years doing crappy gigs and winning over iffy crowds.


Anonymous said...

Killer post my friend. Not much other than that. Just killer.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Good to point out that this doesn't only pertain to performers but people in most professions.

Mo Diggs said...

Well done. I suppose it's like driving. In the beginning you brake abruptly and worry about speeding but after driving your friends around from bar to bar (as DESIGNATED DRIVER of course) you really get the hang of it.

Mo Diggs said...

WAIT! Maybe the hours for stand-ups includes hours spent writing. Write and perform. Write and perform.

Matt Ruby said...

WAIT! Maybe the hours for stand-ups includes hours spent writing. Write and perform. Write and perform.

Yeah, some combo definitely. But you could spend 10,000 hours writing and still be a really shitty comic (see any author that tries to be funny). But if you spend 10,000 hours on stage, you'll prob wind up a pretty decent writer...even if ya just count "writing" while onstage.

Unknown said...

Great post, Matt. My instinct is that since writing and performing are different (though related) skills to be great at both, you probably need to do X hours of both (where X is whatever huge number) to be good at both, though of course it's amazingly hard to get that much stagetime (Cosby excepted).

I'm reading Gladwell's book now and the whole thing is really fascinating. He also has a recent article about late bloomers that has considerable potential applications to stand-up and comedy.


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