Another writer sent me a link to a BusinessWeek article about a summer boot camp for musicians that reminded me, once again, that what separates amateurs from professionals in any creative endeavor is practice. And not just any practice, but deliberate, intentional practice, often four or five hours a day — focusing on weaknesses, getting better, always striving to improve your skills and your techniques. Mindless repitition only reinforces bad habits, but good practice, and lots of of it, is far more important than native talent. Here’s a key passage:
The results were clear-cut, with little room for any sort of inscrutable God-given talent. The elite musicians had simply practiced far more than the others. “That’s been replicated for all sorts of things — chess players and athletes, dart players,” says Ericsson. “The only striking difference between experts and amateurs is in this capability to deliberately practice.” The group even determined the number of hours musicians must play to compete at the highest professional level — about 10,000, the equivalent of practicing four hours a day, every day, for almost seven years.
I’m still amazed at how many people I meet that think that if someone’s successful at writing (or art or music), that means they’re more talented than the rest of us. And while I don’t dispute that everyone has certain aptitudes, things they are better at than others, I would take the driven student, the one willing to work harder than all the others, over the “most talented one in the class” any day of the week. Give the hard worker ten years and suddenly everyone will be saying how talented he is. It happens every time.
I know my own modest sucess as a writer only happened after I got serious about productivity, when I started writing on an annual basis what it used to take me ten years to write. I went from writing four or five short stories a year to the equivalent of thirty or forty stories a year, though some of that was in novels, too. I also know that to get where I want to go, I have to up the productivity again. With a full time job and two young children, this is easier said than done, but there’s always time to do what’s most important. There also comes a point at which you cannot envision dedicating your life to anything else — that outside of your family, nothing is as remotely as appealing.
In the end, I do think the work itself is its own reward, and when you reach that point, a strange sort of thing happens. When you read an article like the one I mentioned above, you don’t think “My God, that’s a lot of work,” but instead, “My god, I need to be working that hard, too.”