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.

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Meg November 18, 2008 at 10:36 am

I love this post! It really spoke to me. Right now I am trying to decide what to do with my life because the economy is forcing me out of a comfortable job and into an uncomfortable, unknown area. I was second guessing myself, but this post made me realize I can do it. All my mistkaes, I mean practice, means I can do it. Thank you, Erin!

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Petite Main November 18, 2008 at 10:45 am

Thank you so much Erin for this post and for the link to the article!

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La BellaDonna November 18, 2008 at 10:52 am

I have seen some breathtaking – BREATHTAKING – examples of sewing skill on these our very own innernets. I have seen embroidery, particularly, and historical research which leaves me gobsmacked – both admiring and, yes, envious. I see people who create things that I love for their beauty, and envy for their talent, and when I’m done beating myself up for that, I twist the knife by realizing that much of the difference is just … putting the time in. And knowing that I could do, or could have done, the same – but I didn’t. This is, in fact, how I got to be as good as I am – my husband and I were at about the same skill level, but he left everything to me to do, and my skills improved exponentially.I’d put my skills at Really Darned Good – and theirs at better. But I’m still goshdarned good at fitting. So I try to suck it up, and just admire – but that little voice that scolds and says You could have done the same, and didn’t – it isn’t very comforting. :P

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*Sandra* November 18, 2008 at 11:07 am

So let’s see… I’ve got in about 30 hours of belly dancing up to now, and I’m coming up on 62 (years old). If I take early retirement and really put my mind to it, I could be a world-class belly dancer by the time I’m 70! Or I could just continue to puddle along in Beginner 1 class (OK, maybe Beginner 2, eventually) and have fun! But I’m really glad that the Beatles were a little more dedicated than I.

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whistlepeaknits November 18, 2008 at 11:16 am

What’s weird is that just as I was reading your post the author came on The Colbert Report in rerun to talk about the book. Freaky.

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Jenny November 18, 2008 at 11:25 am

Wow, I am a world-class champion novel-reader. That’ll put a spring in my step today.

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lianaleslie November 18, 2008 at 11:34 am

My paperdolls take an hour to three hours every day — I’m just going to say an average of two hours spent on the paperdoll drawing, which doesn’t include time spent researching or writing for the blog but does include preliminary sketching. That’s fourteen years — I think I can safely say I’m two years in, if I estimate the time I’ve spent on paperdolls over the course of my life. So at my current rate I’m looking at over a decade until every dress lover on the Internet has a link to my blog!I might start by drawing this dress, it’s gorgeous…

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Sal November 18, 2008 at 12:05 pm

What an encouraging, optimistic take on skill. So let’s see, I’ve probably sung for at least 2 hours per week for the past 31 years … crap. No wonder I’m not a rock star. YET.

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Lavon November 18, 2008 at 12:06 pm

I worked for 15 years at a bank and was laid off. When I was laid off I was excited because it was my determination to take my sewing skills and make them better. It is 5 years later and it is still my determination. I have made bridesmaids dresses and 3 prom dress and 2 graduation dresses and I have no photographs of any of these accomplishments.( I recently purchased a camera ) I have periods when I just stop sewing (i mean not even a button) I have periods when I cannot be stopped. ( my husband actualy flipped the breaker switch so I thought it there was a power outage. I just finish by hand.)I want to improve on every aspect of creating beautiful dresses. I started sewing at 15. I am now 46 so that is 27 years. I will work toward the 10,000. with great diligence in the next three years and I will get back to ya!Thanks for the inspiration!

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marstokyo November 18, 2008 at 12:32 pm

I started sewing my own clothes as a kid. That dress wouldn’t be that hard to make. If you can look at it closely, you can make it. If you have it on a mannequin in your studio, even better.

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Cookie November 18, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Be sure to count the “visioning” hours you spend when you’re asleep and dreaming! They add up!This does remind me of one of the only bumper-sticker-slogan-psychology-blurbs I ever saw that I really agreed with; “Whatever we focus on, increases.”Meaning, if we focus on being scared worrywarts, that sense of unease is going to increase because that’s what we’re putting our time into. If you focus on the spirit of forgiveness, the ability to forgive others will increase. If you focus on writing 3 pages of a novel a day, that stack of papers WILL increase. So while it seems kind of simplistic and obvious, I try to remember this, and it helps me get out of a rut sometimes when I’m dwelling on stuff that ultimately doesn’t help anyone.

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Kate November 18, 2008 at 1:06 pm

I saw the inside of some Charles James dresses once at the Brighton Museum on a Costume Society day. There was some very poor stitching in there, I can tell you – some of the older ladies in the group were positively shocked. I gather he used to get his mother (I think?) and various other random people to sew for him. I was quite pleased because it means you can make something fabulous without necessarily having top-notch skills, which is important while you’re racking up your 10,000 hours I think!

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Penny Hodgson-Dell November 18, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Hi Erin, well this touches all aspects of life, we should have an ‘hour’ pedometer when we work on projects like this. I was so excited to read about the paper doll blog. I only started recognizing and loving paper dolls recently. Also I think I would be close to 100,000 hours working on my website reopening I hope in December.. this is the third time reinstalling over 15000 items by hand and pictures.. I am a beggar for punishment.. 3 years day in and out, average 14 hours daily listing so that would be close to 100,000 hours I would thinkI Thank you Erin! Keep up the good work. Penny

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Wolf Woman November 18, 2008 at 1:27 pm

So that means that if my husband and I sit down every night for an hour to work on our relationship, in about 27 years it will be perfect! XDI have no way of doing this math for the things I have already been practicing. My only-recently-diagnosed ADHD means I’ve spent my entire life with no sense of time, so unless I am actually keeping a project diary (which I usually forget to do) I have no idea how long I spend on anything.

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Lorraine November 18, 2008 at 1:55 pm

Wow, I’ve been at my career for about 28,000 hours. And I’m seriously considering a change, due to burnout and just plain jadedness. Does this mean that anything beyond 10,000 hours is just plateau? Because if that’s true, it’s more incentive for me to do something new! I don’t want to plateau!

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Cookie November 18, 2008 at 2:35 pm

I saw the inside of some Charles James dresses…There was some very poor stitching in there, I can tell you – some of the older ladies in the group were positively shocked. SCANDAL! O…M…G!But somehow, this IS slightly heartening : )

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Lisa Simeone November 18, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Swooning over this Charles James gown!Re Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Michiko Kakutani gave it a tepid review in the NYT the other day. Surprising, as they usually love his stuff. Will go read the Guardian’s take now.

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Ruth Singer November 18, 2008 at 2:59 pm

you know, at deadline times (like exhibition or book deadline coming up) I’m sure I manage those 10,000 hours sewing in a week!

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Ruth Singer November 18, 2008 at 2:59 pm

you know, at deadline times (like exhibition or book deadline coming up) I’m sure I manage those 10,000 hours sewing in a week!

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Anonymous November 18, 2008 at 3:57 pm

I started writing fiction at 20, between university lectures. Coming up on 9 years now, writing every day, and still improving every day (I have a disability and have never been able to hold down a proper job, so I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to put the time in.) Interestingly, I’ve been advised independently that it it usually takes ten years of writing daily to become a published writer. As for sewing, I’m waaay down on the clock, but I managed to sew successfully with silk satin for the first time this year. My next challenge is chiffon.Erin, please write more fiction! (if you can find the time:) I love your Secret Lives of Dresses stories!

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Kellie November 18, 2008 at 3:57 pm

There is great insight here in that persistence and indefatigable perfection of one’s skills will often, if not always, trump genius. A genius may leap to some great insight, but most of these insights will die, sowed on sterile ground, because the heads-down, get the job done, follow through to bring that insight to the market is lacking.It’s easy to imagine tucks from top to bottom, all exquisitely fitted, but doing it and making it work on a runway model is something entirely different, and the kind of thing that folks who have spent, say, 80,000 hours developing software and still find their proficiency increasing with experience can appreciate.But if you want to scale the heights, there’s no alternative to making the assault. Should you do so before you have the requisite experience? Of course not–that would just be discouraging. But when you think you can? You may just surprise yourself with what you can do, and how few people looking upon your work at a reasonable distance notice the flaws about which you’re grinding your teeth.

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Little Hunting Creek November 18, 2008 at 4:26 pm

Wow, our moms were right: Practice does make perfect. I wonder if thinking about sewing counts as time spent?

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kagitsune November 18, 2008 at 4:39 pm

Wow… Gladwell just won’t leave me alone. First being required to read Blink, then this exact same talk showing up on my RSS feeds (all thanks to you, actually ;) ), and now showing up here on DaD? It’s a good think I love what he has to say… xD

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Shaina November 18, 2008 at 5:51 pm

I’m thinking of my knitting, a craft a craft at which I consider myself to be fairly advanced…let’s say I’ve been knitting for two hours a day every day for the past two years: that still puts me at a little less than 1,500 hours. 1,500?! According to that, it will take me another fourteen years, knitting at my current rate, to become an expert. Wild!

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deanne November 18, 2008 at 11:15 pm

that dress is absolutely gorgeous! my jaw dropped when i saw it and i’m still in awe! thanks for posting it!

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Liz November 19, 2008 at 6:36 am

I’ve been knitting for 4 years now at a rate of (rough average) 3 hours per day which means that I’m already at 4380. Just another 5 years to go then!

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Nathalie November 19, 2008 at 7:40 am

For those wishing to rack up a few hours, there’s a ‘how’ to this Charles James dress at the following link:- http://dept.kent.edu/museum/exhibit/james/KSUM_1983_1_412.htm22 yards of hem length for the tulle godet, and a staggering 135.8 yards for the combined hem length of the 6 layers of tulle… My local fabric shop says there’s a ‘tulle shortage’ on at the moment. It’ll be a full-on tulle crisis if too many people try this one at home…

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Miss Amelina November 19, 2008 at 8:07 am

i think that means the only thing I am really good at is smoking, sadly. And I quit that! :) Neato post.

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Rachel November 19, 2008 at 8:10 am

Great post, Erin!I’m think I’m an expert at taking naps. I’m only 29, but I’m sure I’ve already racked up 10,000 hours….

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tea November 19, 2008 at 8:21 am

I’m very excited that this book is finally out.In juxtaposition to a previous comment, though, a Gladwell article in the NYer a couple weeks ago notes that JSF wrote (and published) Everything is Illuminated in no time flat. So sometimes it’s just luck. But at least if you don’t get the luck, it’s good to know hard work does pay off, too! I know I definitely feel encouraged to keep plugging away at the things for which I am not naturally gifted. :)

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em November 19, 2008 at 8:29 am

I’m not sure I agree that time is so important a factor in achieving greatness. Even if you spend 10,000 hours, for example, sewing, if you never challenge yourself past the same few techniques, you’ll never become a great sewist. Likewise, you could spend 2,000 hours sewing, really challenging yourself and trying new things, and develop great skills in that relatively short time.Plus, I want to point out that the time spent sketching, pattern drafting, cutting, pressing, etc. still counts as ‘sewing’ time (to me) even though you’re not, technically, sewing.(This was meant to sound encouraging, not dismissive, btw!)

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Deirdre November 19, 2008 at 10:07 am

3 years at 8 hours a day! I needed a calculator to do that.

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Jen November 19, 2008 at 10:56 am

Erin, if you wanted to start making your ideal cardigans, you could probably rack up the requisite hours fairly quickly while on airplanes. I suspect that plain cardigans would probably turn out quite well even before you had 4000 hours of practice.(also meant to be encouraging!)

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Jean November 19, 2008 at 10:57 am

That is pretty impressive! When you show stuff like this on your blog… I feel like I’m on a field trip! A good one! Not the boring ones! Thanks for taking us along for the ride!I’m with you! I like to “practice” too!

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Anonymous November 19, 2008 at 11:16 am

Too bad my nusband is getting me a dishwasher for Christmas. I was finally getting Good at it! Eventually I could’ve even challenged the dish-washing geniuses of the world!

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Cookie November 19, 2008 at 12:20 pm

For those wishing to rack up a few hours, theres a How-To…My local fabric shop says theres a tulle shortage on at the moment. Itll be a full-on tulle crisis if too many people try this one at home Let the hording begin!Brides are advised to anchor veils snugly, travel in pairs whenever possible, and increase security at receptions. Double weddings are expected to be hit especially hard.

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Scazza November 19, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Hi Erin! It’s Orion’s Sara. I first heard of the 10,000 hours rule in Daniel Levitan’s “This is your brain on music.” Ever since then I’ve kept an excel doc with the 10,000 number, I log every hour I actually do the activity (studying the activity doesn’t count since it’s training your brain in the action itself, different sides of the brain and muscle memory), and count down. The book has an entire chapter on expertise, saying for instance that research shows that successful people have more failures than unsuccessful people. So success also depends on whether you learn from your mistakes/failures and get up and try again; I guess the “get back on the horse” rule.I’m not sure I’m going to read Gladwell’s book though, it got such a scathing NYT review that I don’t know I could shake.

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Vegan November 19, 2008 at 12:27 pm

I just read the Guardian article and it’s really fascinating! I’m not sure if I agree with his conclusion 100%, because, as he points out, it’s difficult to separate raw talent from a willingness to work. But it’s something to think about!

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Erin November 19, 2008 at 12:32 pm

I *love* the idea that successful people have more failures than unsuccessful people. Now I’m not screwing up, I’m failing my way towards success!

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What-I-Found November 19, 2008 at 12:38 pm

I have a secret…I love the ukelele. And I finally got one. Then I heard an expert player, some young kid who was playing the socks off his instrument. And I said “Well, of course he’s good, probably been playing for his whole twenty years.”. Then it occurred to me that I’m 52. I probably have a good twenty years left, and I could get as good as that guy. So I better get started!

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Veiled Glory November 19, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Winston Churchill – “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”Tulle shortage explained by all those little fairy tutus you see on the web which require 12 yards for one 3 year old size.

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Scazza November 19, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Yea! Orion always tells me “fail faster.”

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Cel Petro November 19, 2008 at 2:29 pm

The lushious dress is only a foretaste of a brilliant post. Instead of doing the math, I’m gonna read Gladwell’s book and hope it inspires me as much as your take on it and post did. Thanks Erin!

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Libby F. November 20, 2008 at 5:40 am

What is the bit about 10,000 monkeys and 10,000 typewriters…?:)

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La BellaDonna November 20, 2008 at 10:04 am

I would also mention that it is “PERFECT practice makes perfect”! How awful to do something incorrectly for 10,000 hours, so you’re great at doing it … wrong. It does tell me why, when I was doing martial arts 3-7 hours a day, all week long, I was better in a year than people who’d been doing it for “more years” – but fewer hours. Charles James was absolutely a perfectionist, in terms of engineering – the poor stitching may have been because (a) it was enough to do what was needed; or (b) because he kept taking dresses BACK from their owners, and fixing them. Constantly. And James is not alone – apparently there was some very poor quality stitching on some Charles Worth gowns, hidden by decorative bits! (This is separate and apart from the large stitches used to construct 18thC gowns, which were made to be easily picked apart and altered.)

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Maggie November 20, 2008 at 5:41 pm

Oh boy, I’m at 10,000…but I think it’s just because I’m old.

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gar November 21, 2008 at 5:43 pm

It’s not just 10000 hours if you’re doing it (whatever you want to be great at) the same way all the time. It’s 10000 hours of “deliberate practice”, that is consciously trying to do it better every time. To exemplify: “Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.”Check out also this great article:http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/10/30/8391794/index.htmGood luck to all

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HollyP November 25, 2008 at 12:49 pm

I see this in practice with my children: an 8 year old who can do a half-hearted falling down mess of a cartwheel, and a very focussed 6 year old who has progressed from a perfect cartwheel to a one-handed carthweel and front back handsprings. You know which kid practices constantly. I wish you much joy in seeking your remaining 5,500 hours. I hope I find something which will make me want to actively pursue 10,000 hours!

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knitgirl November 26, 2008 at 7:11 am

The exhibit at the Chicago History Museum is a temporary one, called Chic Chicago. It’s a must see. We spent a couple of hours there.

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JuliaR November 28, 2008 at 1:36 pm

I am currently at work on a non-fiction book. I have never been published (except for letters to the editor and my blogs) but when I look at your calculations and consider all the writing I have done up to this point, and I see that I have already accumulated more 10,000 hours, I am very encouraged about getting my book published. For example, one year I was away and wrote home every day (this was before the days of blogs and the internet even) and amassed 300,000 words. 300 times 30 is 9000! And that was just one 12 month period. Thank you for putting this into perspective this way. More than ever, I am now looking forward to the Spring and sending out query letters.

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