10,000 Hours. (What Are You Waiting For? Start Now.)

by Erin on November 18, 2008


Charles James Butterfly dress

Has everyone heard about Malcolm Gladwell's new book? It's called Outliers: The Story of Success.

There's an excerpt in the Guardian which is fascinating; you should go read the whole thing (and check out his Pop!Tech talk, too) but here is the two-minute takeaway: when we look at people who are at the top of their game, it's not so much that they are fantastically talented — it's more that they put in the time. How much time? About ten thousand hours of time, if you want to be the best of the best. (If you want to be merely good, shoot for 8,000 hours, and if you're okay with being just north of mediocre, 4,000 hours.)

The dress above is something I would love, someday, to be able to make. (It's the Charles James Butterfly dress, from the Chicago History Museum.) Let's assume, whether it's true or not, that I don't have to be a staggering 10K-hour rocket scientist to make it, but could skate by on merely 8K hours of practice. How far am I from being able to make this dress?

I've probably sewn an average of 15 hours a month for the past twenty-five years, sometimes a little more, and sometimes a lot less. But let's take 15 hours a month as average. 15 x 12 x 25 is 4,500 hours, putting me just above mediocre … which, to be honest, is right where I would say my own sewing skillset is (and those of you who keep pointing out — rightly — that I should match my patterns better will agree!). But if I keep sewing at this rate, or, better yet, crank it up a bit more, I could be at Charles James Dress Level in another decade or so — which certainly worth trying for, right?

TEN THOUSAND HOURS may sound a bit frightening, but to me (since I'm almost halfway there!) it sounds fantastically encouraging. To hear that I don't have to have some ineffable pixie-dust sprinkle of magic called talent or genius or knack to make the kinds of dresses I dream of — all I have to do is KEEP AT IT? And that this notion is backed by Science? How great is that?

I'm also going to be more generous from now on in what I call "practice." Reading sewing blogs & magazines and seeing new techniques? Practice. Hanging out in the fabric store? Practice. Idly googling "Callot Soeurs"? Practice. These next 5,500 hours are going to FLY by, I tell you!

So … what do you want to be great at? How fast can you get to 10,000 hours? I'll wait while you do the math.

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