How to Become a Successful Writer –

or Athlete, Musician, Businessperson, Whatever

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Photo Collage by Jim LaBate

Do you have what it takes to become an outlier? According to The American Heritage College Dictionary, an “outlier” is “one whose domicile is distant from one’s place of business” (970). Since the earliest recorded use of this word dates back to the 17th century, one can assume that an outlier lived in the country, far away from the central activities of his work in a town or a village. In 2008, however, author Malcolm Gladwell broadened the definition of the word in his best-selling book called Outliers: The Story of Success. And it’s Gladwell’s definition that may well determine whether you have what it takes to be a successful writer.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

According to Gladwell, outliers are “men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary” (17). His definition focuses not on the person’s physical separation from the town but on the activities that go well beyond the normal or the average. This is especially true in regard to a person’s effort and devotion to a particular skill. Gladwell states that one of the main ingredients to “success” is a commitment to work, and he claims that in order to achieve success, one has to commit 10,000 hours to the task.

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Ten-thousand hours is essentially five years of full-time work (40 hours per week times 50 weeks times five years = 10,000) or ten years of half-time work. How did Gladwell come up with this particular number? He based it in part on a 1993 study of musicians. In the study, researchers analyzed the practice time of violinists at the Academy of Music in Berlin, Germany. The musicians were separated into three groups: at one extreme were those who would likely become world-class experts; at the other extreme were those who would most likely never play professionally but would probably become music teachers; and the third group was made up of those between the two extremes (Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer).

And while many people might assume that the musicians’ natural ability separated the best from the worst, the true indicator of success was the amount of practice time. Based on the research, all the musicians began playing around the age of five and practiced two to three hours per week. This continued for roughly three years. At the age of eight, however, some students began practicing up to six hours a week, and that number increased as they aged: “eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty . . . well over thirty hours a week” (Gladwell 38). By then, the best performers had accumulated 10,000 hours of practice while the middle and bottom groups had only totaled 8,000 and 4,000 hours respectively (Gladwell 38).

The same researchers later studied professional pianists and reached the same conclusion. In fact, they never found a so-called “natural,” a gifted musician who could rise to the top on talent alone without putting in the required 10,000 hours of practice time.

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Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Does this same rule apply to all professions? Yes. According to neurologist Daniel Levitin: “In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again . . . But no one has yet found a case in which true world class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery” (Gladwell 40).

So do you have what it takes to be an “outlier” in writing? Are you willing to put in 10,000 hours? When I meet with my Composition I students, I tell them that if they complete the course, they will be 1% of the way there (assuming three hours in class per week times 15 weeks equals 45 hours plus a minimum of 45 hours of preparation time plus at least 10 hours on the research paper). Obviously, 1% doesn’t sound like much, and that number could discourage some potential writers, but if “true mastery” and “success” are your goals, then 10,000 hours might be only the beginning to a long and prosperous career.

Works Cited

Ericsson, K. Anders, et al. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Psychological Review, vol. 100, no. 3, 1993, pp. 363–406, PsychArticles,–5284c2daf557%40sessionmgr4009&vid=0&hid=4202.

“Outlier.” The American Heritage College Dictionary. 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little Brown, 2008.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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