The following text is the introductory chapter for my forthcoming short story collection, Specula One, due later this month.
In his amazing book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how it takes 10,000 hours of practice in a field to achieve mastery. Does mastery yield automatic success? Of course not. When I was seventeen, I worked on a dairy farm. If I’d stayed there, I might have spent 10,000 hours milking cows and become one of the greatest cow milkers in the northwestern U.S. Would that have brought me widespread fame and wealth? Mmm, no, probably not.
There is a strong “right place, right time” component to the 10,000-hour proposition. Gladwell uses Bill Gates as an example and how both Gates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen logged in ridiculous amounts of programming time while still in school during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — a time when hardly anyone had access to computers. When 1975 arrived, not only was Gates prepared with expertise, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. There are two sides to the success coin, and both are necessary.
No one explained this to me as a kid. I went through my childhood blathering on about how I wanted to be a professional author when I grew up, but not even in college did anyone ever provide any concrete objectives or mileposts that might be required to make that happen. No one said, “Practice for 10,000 hours and you’ll get there.” Instead, all of the common wisdom repeated the same generalities: write every day, start selling short stories, then leverage those sales into novel contracts.
OK, so what does that mean? “Write every day”? How much each day? Some books touted fifteen minutes as an acceptable amount in a pinch. And what if you spend (like I did) seven years trying to sell short stories and come up with $10 to show for your efforts? Well, that’s pretty demoralizing. No wonder so many young people love to write and never become writers. All that advice, all that work, all for nothing.
There’s a bit in Gladwell’s book that often gets overlooked. Yes, it might take 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, but not everyone needs to be a master. According to Gladwell, one can obtain enough expertise after 4,000 or 5,000 hours to teach, even at the university level. In other words, it might take 10,000 hours to reach the stars, but if you’re content to walk on the moon, the barrier to success is much lower.
I reel to think how my life might have gone differently if someone had pulled me aside at age 17 or so, back when I had all the free time in the world, and said, “You want to sell stories for a living? OK. If you practice writing fiction for 10,000 hours, pushing yourself to learn more and do better with each one of those hours, you’ll come out at the end of it with a best-seller. But if you put in 5,000 hours, you’ll sell stories — probably enough stories to make a comfortable living if you keep working hard at it.”
That one statement would have given me a tangible goal to hit: five thousand hours. Do the math.
Imagine if the Life Fairy had appeared before me, waved her magic keyboard, and said, “William, if you write for two hours every day without fail for the next seven years, I’ll make you a successful novelist,” I would have freaked out. You couldn’t have pried me away from my 286 PC with a crowbar.
That’s it? Only 5,000 hours? What if I do three hours a day? That’s only four and a half years!
But I didn’t even get close to that number. When we don’t have concrete objectives, when we lack a solid plan able to turn a dream into a goal, it’s easy to lose focus and get distracted. I know I sure did.
The cool thing about dreams, though, is that they never disappear. They might lie shriveled and brown on the floor of our spirits, but they never entirely die. They simply require some care and commitment in order to revitalize and flourish.
I did eventually put in my 10,000 writing hours, but I ended up doing it in technical non-fiction. And that’s fine. Mastery there has sustained my family for the last fifteen years, and for that I remain forever grateful. But those articles, for the most part, are not stories. They may tickle the mind momentarily, but they almost never grab the imagination, caress the heart, or kick the gut. They are two very different kinds of writing with two wholly different objectives.
One morning, as I stood staring my fortieth birthday in the face, I realized that my lifelong dream was neither satisfied nor dead. It was getting late in the game, sure. I was well beyond the early twenties that Gladwell says are so typical of when those with mastery break through to success. But it could still be done. It’s not over until the coroner goes home.
Measurement matters. I now have spreadsheets and applications that help track my time and progress with fiction. Writers measure things by words more than hours, and the rough finish line you’ll often hear cited for mastery in writing is one million words. Again, my Life Fairy could’ve thrown that number at me, and I would’ve been just as excited and determined. After all, even while holding down my regular career, I’ve logged in over 180,000 words of fiction so far in 2013. That’s probably more than I did in those first seven abortive years combined.
The stories in Specula One, my first short fiction collection, comprise a snapshot of my work at this point on my march to that million-word milepost. (Note that it’s only a milepost. There is no finish line.) There will be others. You may be relieved to know that only one of the stories here is from that early seven-year period of my life. Everything else I wrote in that period was, to be honest, embarrassing and will hopefully never see the light of day. How I wish someone in a position of authority had said to me back then, “This stuff is fine. It’s exactly the kind of thing a future writer produces in his first 100,000 words. Now keep practicing.”
I keep talking about myself here, but this isn’t really about me. I’m writing this introduction as a message to anyone out there with unfulfilled dreams, especially younger readers. All too often, there are no Life Fairies, no industry wizards waiting to take you under their wing. Excessive praise can give you a fat head that’s ripe for popping when you land in the real world. Short-term expectations and lack of a long-term plan can lead to crippling disappointment.
Take a different path. If you have a dream, turn it into a goal. Well-planned goals have very little to do with luck and everything to do with discipline. It’s about 10,000 hours. One million words. Little, manageable blocks of time spent every day in pursuit of the thing that makes the fire in your belly burn brightest. There are no guarantee, but these ingredients comprise the surest recipe around for success. And who knows? If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might be able to leap clear from success and mastery into world-renowned greatness.
Identify the mileposts. Race for them. Life is too short for anything less.
William Van Winkle
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.