Saturday, December 13, 2014

10,000 Hours

When thinking about my next book, I usually start with two things: an idea for the plot, often culled from news stories, and a character.

For "Faith, Hope, and Murder," the news story was about the number of illegal immigrants who die in the desert each year trying to reach freedom and safety. It was a particularly bad year when I was thinking about that book. There were so many bodies, the Medical Examiner's office had to rent a refrigerated truck to store the overflow in. The character was Faith Andersen, a transplant to Tucson who wasn't sure what her beliefs about God were, but felt the need to find out.

For "Shadow of Death," the character was a really bad villain. I'd noticed in writing the first book (and several other practice novels) that I had a tendency to make my villains too nice. They were killers, yes, but not evil people. I know this doesn't match reality. There are really bad people in this world, and I made a conscious effort to have one of those be the killer. The idea for the plot was to recreate an English manor house mystery, in the vein of Agatha Christie, with a limited number of characters in an isolated location. Think "Ten Little Indians" or "Murder on the Orient Express." Being Tucson, my "manor house" is a dude ranch. Since manor house mystery isn't really a plot, I had to work a lot harder at developing one for that book.

I'm now planning my third mystery in the Community of Faith series. This time (Phew!) I do have a news story as the basis for the plot. I'm not going to reveal what that is, because it's early days, and lots may change between now and the time I actually start writing the novel. The character is one of those larger than life people, an outlier.

I find outliers fascinating. I recently watched the biopic about Steve Jobs. Having come of age during the computer revolution, I've always been fascinated by characters like Jobs and Bill Gates and the other pioneers who believed their vision so obsessively they didn't care about social graces or being nice. I loved "The Social Network" and its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. I've also read "Made in America," the biography of Sam Walton, founder of WalMart. I love Sherlock Holmes, particularly as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, because he's not normal. I'm waiting impatiently for the wide theatrical release of "The Imitation Game" and its story of Alan Turing. One of the reasons I gobbled up "Physics of the Impossible" by Michio Kaku was because I was continually fascinated by the physicists and mathematicians who are able to come up with the incredible vision of how the universe is put together.

As research for my character, I'm reading "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. I'm not very far into the book, but I've learned a couple of amazing things. First of all, it's an advantage to be born in the early part of the year. Gladwell starts with the example of hockey players. It turns out most professional hockey players are born in the first quarter of the year. There are few born in December. The reason? Early on, in childhood as a matter of fact, who are the best players in any particular age group? Those who are older. When age range is determined by calendar year, the "eight-year-olds" include those who turn eight in January as well as those who turn eight in December. The January babies have a huge advantage. They're bigger and more developed and thus outperform their younger teammates, regardless of natural ability.

And then what happens? Those good players are selected for the better teams (they called them the travel teams when my son played soccer), they get better coaching, and they play more hockey. The younger players, having started out with a disadvantage, play less hockey and don't get the best coaches, so they fall further behind. With the advantages the good players get right from the start, the gap between the January players and the December players widens each year.

Huh.

I'm a January baby. I do not excel in physical activities. I was an early, low birth weight baby, which probably explains some of that. But I do excel in mental activities, which are subject to the same phenomena as the hockey players. I have a good brain. I went to college largely on a scholarship. Somewhere around here, there's a Phi Beta Kappa key. I'm not bragging, it's just facts. If I were bragging, I'd know where that key is. And show it to you.

I also got advantages right from the beginning. When I went to elementary school, we had the "tracking" system. The bright students were put in Track 1. The average students were put in Track 2. The underachievers were put in Track 3. I was in Track 1. We got the best teachers. Our lessons were different than those given to the Track 2 and Track 3 students. And, when the launch of Sputnik by the Russians scared the crap out of the U.S. educational system, who was chosen for the brand new program where fourth graders were taught high school chemistry? Yup. Me, along with 199 of my Track 1 compatriots. (It was a very large school district.) We got to study one year of chemistry over the next three years. Tell me that's not an advantage.

My brother is a November baby. He did not excel either academically or in sports. In fact, he had ants-in-the-pants syndrome and probably would have been diagnosed as ADHD, if there had been such a thing when we were growing up. I remember being aware at some point that his being younger than most in his class was one reason he didn't do as well as I did. My mother was a teacher, so she certainly was aware of this problem from her own experience. But I doubt she knew about the continuing disadvantage he had because of it.

So that brings me to the title of this post: 10,000 Hours. I think this phrase is familiar to most people, even if they haven't read "Outliers." The full statement is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a skill. Gladwell's example in this case starts with musicians, which also turned out to be my brother's occupation. It turns out that those musicians who practiced the most were in orchestras and other performing fields. Those who practiced the least became music teachers. And then, in a mindblowing section, he discusses Mozart, who famously was composing at six years old--certainly not enough time to have practiced for 10,000 hours yet. The perfect example of a prodigy. It turns out what Mozart was "composing" at six was really arranging music already written, and it took a while for him to actually compose anything original. The part that blew me away was that Mozart was twenty-one before he wrote a masterwork, so he'd been practicing for fifteen years!

Gladwell then brought in the statistics for hockey players who, because they were selected for the elite teams, automatically had to practice more. Et cetera.

This is where my inner voice stood up and said, "But...!" The implication that Gladwell seemed to be making (and I haven't read much past this point, so I may be totally off base here) is that anyone willing to put in that 10,000 hours of practice could become an expert in his or her field. I will never be an elite athlete, no matter how many hours I put in. In addition to the age factor, I am a natural-born klutz. I can trip over my own feet.

Certainly I could improve. There was a time I played tennis almost every day and got so I could serve a ball and sort of control where I returned one to. When I regularly played guitar, I could manage simple tunes, songs I enjoyed singing with my not-so-great voice. But, in both cases, stopping for any period of time, skipping more than a day or two, would result in a degradation of my skills so severe that I despaired of ever making any progress. Unlike writing. Even when I took my decades-long hiatus from writing fiction, I had a boss tell me I "gave good memo." I have a talent for words.

I started thinking about how you get that 10,000 hours of practice in. That's a lot of time. It takes dedication and sacrifice to do it. It seems to me there has to be more than determination to get there. It takes motivation.

So let's go back to me and my brother. Because I did well in school, I was praised every time I brought home a report card. Because I got the praise for good grades, I was motivated to study more, to research and write better term papers, to excel in school in the hopes of getting more praise from my parents. What happened to my brother? When he brought home a report card, there were cries of dismay. "You failed x!" So what was his motivation to get better grades? Not much. Avoiding those cries, satisfying the demand that he had to study more, etc. But those lasted a day or two, and it was more fun to go play with his friends after school than to read a book. There was nothing positive to be gained, at least in his eyes.

It was the opposite with music. We both had the same clarinet teacher and took our lessons back to back. When my brother expressed an interest in becoming a professional musician, the teacher started working with him to achieve that. His lessons changed, the teacher talked to him about schools he could go to, he started teaching him the saxophone in addition to the clarinet. When a while later I expressed the thought that I might like to become a musician, his response was, "It's too hard a life." No encouragement whatsoever. Now, I don't know if what he meant was that it was too hard a life for a girl or that I wasn't talented enough to do it and he didn't want to tell me or what. All I knew was that I was deflated and had little motivation to practice much after that. I eventually stopped taking lessons and dropped out of the high school band in my senior year.

There are other things that factor into achievement. Gladwell has already alluded to wealth, which I also know about from personal experience. My dream college was Mount Holyoke. (Actually, it was Amherst, but back then Amherst was boys only and Mount Holyoke was girls only. However, if you went to Mount Holyoke, you were allowed to take classes for credit at Amherst.) I will never forget the visit my mother and I made or imagining myself sitting in the writers room the admissions person showed us. For a few reasons, not the least of which was my parents couldn't afford to pay for it, I did not go to Mount Holyoke. I did not study creative writing at Mount Holyoke or astronomy at Amherst. I went to Michigan State, attended Big 10 football games, and majored in psychology, which I only briefly sort-of used. I've often wondered what my life would have been like if I had attended a different college and chosen a different career path.

I'm curious as to what else leads to a person becoming an outlier. I guess I'll have to keep reading. Since I love reading and learning new things, this is not a problem. And I'm sure I'll have a very interesting character to write about when I'm done.
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