I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I like Gladwell’s writing, and I like the way he thinks; I’ve read Blink and What the Dog Saw and now I’m about halfway through this one.
When I look at the analysis that Gladwell does of outstanding achievers in any discipline, I begin to understand something of my own career, and why it hasn’t, perhaps, gone quite where I’d thought it would. Gladwell talks about supportive communities, mainly families, and about timing and luck and the skills and attitudes we learn as children from our parents and teachers.
When I grew up, girls were still expected, by both family and the school system, to drop all career concerns and get married and have children. In addition, art wasn’t considered a viable career choice for either boys or girls in the working-class atmosphere in which I was raised. Put those two things together, and I didn’t have a really supportive atmosphere in which to develop the skills necessary to become a great artist or writer when I was young. The other thing that Gladwell talks about is the emerging consensus among researchers who study expertise and the mastery of complex tasks that it takes about ten thousand hours of work at something to become what they call a “world-class” expert.
I’ve been writing very, very seriously for three years now, and for about fifteen years before that, I practiced writing regularly, learning the tools and techniques of my craft. Before that, I wasn’t always writing, but I did write, and I thought about my writing and polished it. As a teenager and a child, I wrote all the time.
Sometime between 1992 and now, I’ve probably tipped over that 10,000-hour mark. If I haven’t, I’m close to it. That tells me something about why my writing is starting to move now, why I seem to be able to hit the nail on the head more often, and with more ease. It also tells me why it didn’t happen earlier; I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t done the time.
The other thing is that even if my working-class background didn’t encourage proficiency in the arts, it certainly provided me with some important tools that artists, including writers, really need. I can make deadline. I can work in a disciplined fashion. I understand the necessity of finishing the job if you want to get paid, and of going after the work. I’m hardly meteoric, but if I can see the steps to follow, I can be dogged and follow them. These are all things that I learned from the way my mother and father worked in their business. They seem to be skills that are in almost as high demand as ability to write.
Yes, I’m intelligent, although I think my high IQ isn’t as important as my omnivorous curiosity and my good memory. I’ve also learned something of how to get what I want, how to work with people and even – I hear those who know me well snickering – how to be tactful. Sometimes. That serves you as well as intelligence, and sometimes it serves you better. (Ask me – the smart girl who was the only one who didn’t get asked to her senior prom.)
I don’t necessarily agree with everything Gladwell says, but I find his arguments well-constructed, and his evidence well-organized and comprehensible. In the meantime, another tiny light has gone on. It may not change how anything is, but it changes how I see it. That’s something.