I don’t watch much television—some cricket once in a while, and Bigg Boss when it is in season, for its unwitting insights into human nature. But one of the shows I do follow regularly when it is on, and am a bit of a fanboy of, is American Idol. A few hours ago I saw the final two contestants, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox, battle it out for the crown. They’re two of my favourite AI contestents ever, and I’m convinced both will have glorious careers, regardless of who wins. (The winner hasn’t been announced at the time of writing this.) And Bowersox blew me away with her final song of the day, a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain”.
“Up to the Mountain” is inspired by Martin Luther King’s classic “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered in 1968 the day before he was assassinated. It’s a powerful song, and has been brilliantly performed in the past by the likes of Solomon Burke, Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle and Griffin herself. Bowersox’s version lived up to all that. The emotion in her singing was palpable, and she barely held back her tears as she improvised and sang the words “It’s been a long time coming….” When I watched it for a third time, discreetly wiping a tear because men are not supposed to be moved unless by force, I wondered whether, while rehearsing the song, the thought struck Bowersox that it had been a long time coming for her as well.
Bowersox has been a musician since childhood. She was used to public performances as a kid (such as this one, at age 13), and used to busk at train stations in Chicago as she grew older to support herself. She wrote and recorded a bunch of stirring songs, some of which are up on You Tube. (Check out “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Holy Toledo”.) She had years of struggle and music behind her before she decided to take part in AI, partly so that she could give her child a better future. (She is a single mother.) She had paid her dues.
Talent shows such as AI are often portrayed as platforms where great natural talent is discovered and nurtured and allowed to bloom. But Bowersox’s story is actually typical of the great singers it has showcased. Kelly Clarkson was singing seriously from the time she was in school, and performed in a number of musicals. Carrie Underwood performed prolifically as a kid, and almost got a record contract with Capitol Records at the age of 13. Adam Lambert did musical theatre from before he reached his teens. Clay Aiken sang in school and church choirs, performed in musicals, and had his own band. Chris Daughtry, David Cook, Fantasia Barrino: they all started young, they all paid their dues.
You’ll find the same phenomenon in pretty much any talent show, anywhere. Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study conducted in the early 90s by the psychologist K Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music, which was renowned for its training program for violinists. Gladwell writes, “With the help of the Academy’s professors, they [Ericsson and his colleagues] divided the school’s violinists into three groups: […] the world-class soloists … the merely ‘good’ … [and] students unlikely to ever play professionally. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?”
After doing the match, the study found that “the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice… the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.” The part of the study that I find astonishing is that not only did all the top performers have over 10,000 hours of practice to their credit, but everyone who put in 10,000 hours was a top performer. The key to excellence was not natural talent, but hard work. (Caveat: this is not to say that talent doesn’t matter at all. Firstly, as the researchers pointed out, there was a minimum level of talent required to get into the Academy. Secondly, a completely untalented musician would probably not get the positive feedback for his work that would motivate him to put in 10,000 hours in the first place.)
Ericsson and his colleagues elaborated on their theory at some length in their famous paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (pdf link). Gladwell, illustrating it in his book, turned to examples like the Beatles, who spent months doing live shows in Hamburg long before they made it big, and Mozart, who, for all his prodigiousness, was composing since early childhood before he produced his first acknowledged masterwork at the age of 21—around the time he might have been winning American Idol if he was a singer who lived in our times.
The 10,000-hour rule might seem a bit pat, in terms of the number itself, but the general principle, that hard work matters far more than talent, is one I find credible. Look at our own geniuses, here in India: Sachin Tendulkar might have been born with a special talent, but the most memorable stories of his younger years are those that speak of his hard work: he would spend hours at the nets, perfecting his cricketing reflexes, and would get his coach, Ramakant Achrekar, to ferry him around on his scooter from one match to the other so he could play as much cricket as possible in a day. Another genius, AR Rahman, was a keyboardist in Ilaiyaraaja’s troupe at the age of 11, and played and arranged music for a number of bands in his youth. At the time Roja released, in 1992, he had been in the music business for 15 years. I suspect if you ask them to comment on this, they would agree that if you take away the toil, the 10,000 hours, they would never have made it here.
I feel a personal connection with the 10,000-hour-rule, for it holds true not just for geniuses, but for anyone who wants to improve his skills at anything. Given a certain baseline of talent, it really is hard work alone that makes the difference. (And luck: being in the right place at the right time. But that’s an uncontrollable element.) Ordinarily, this would have been bad news for someone like me a few years ago, aspiring to be a writer but as lazy as a brick. I was lucky, though, that the internet came of age with me, and I started blogging when I did. Blogging was fun, and never felt like work. Motivated by a growing readership, and the pleasing validation it brought, I blogged voraciously, averaging about five posts a day on India Uncut for the first four years of my blogging life. (I’ve gotten tardy, and barely manage that many in a week these days, a matter I intend to remedy.) I’ve lost count of how many posts I’ve written, across blogging platforms, but my last estimate was over 8000. Put it together with the journalism I did, the columns and suchlike, and that’s a hell of a lot of hours. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back at my earlier writing, much of which makes me cringe, the 10,000 hours I metaphorically put in made me a vastly better writer than I was. (This is relative, of course, and maybe ten years later I’ll read this piece and cringe.) I’m far from being the only writer to benefit from blogging: close to home, the lucid prose of Annie Zaidi’s recent book, “Known Turf”, surely owes a debt to her many years of blogging over at her blog, Known Turf.
At one level, the central point of this piece seems obvious. Of course hard work is important: that isn’t rocket science, and we don’t need an academic study or my anecdotal endorsement to tell us that. Nevertheless, practically every day I come across the attitude that ‘talent’ brings with it an entitlement to fame and recognition. (It is mostly the untalented who have this attitude, ironically enough.) I see this in talent-show auditions, where people sing all flat and besura, and act outraged when they are rejected. I see this when young people ask me for advice on how to become better writers, and are surprised when I say ‘read and write as much as possible’. (A good writer must be a good reader, so you need 10k hours of reading as well.) I know writers who have written one book and will never write another because now that they haven’t been acclaimed as geniuses, what’s the point in writing any more? I sit in the local Barista at Versova and see the Bollywood wannabes all around me, the self-conscious actors, the scriptwriters bent over their laptops, and so often I overhear them cribbing about how their talent gets such a raw deal. Well, maybe sometimes it does.
And sometimes, you have to keep at it.
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Whoops. As I’m getting ready to wind it up and send in my piece, I read that Lee DeWyze has just been crowned the new American Idol. Good for him. He’s no overnight success either, having released three indie albums before he made it big here. Star World shows AI episodes three days late, so rather than wait, I will now start downloading this final episode. Given the perilous state of my allegedly broadband connection, I can only hope it doesn’t take 10,000 hours.
Previously on Viewfinder