2009: 10,000 hours and other thoughts

It seems like everyone is looking for the one magic thing that will make their lives better in 2009. Making resolutions, hoping they stick. Sometimes, however, it’s what you choose not to do that makes a difference.

I found myself browsing my own bookshelves over the holidays during one cold evening, looking for something to mentally snack on the other day. Two books caught my attention, one from this year and one more than 15 years old. As with most books on my shelf, I take bits and pieces of their wisdom, filing away what applies and discarding what doesn’t.

The new book, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier’s: The Story of Success, has one rather brilliant point that seems to be resonating with a lot of people, myself included. The idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of practicing something before you really become excellent at it.

That amounts to spending about 20 hours a week for 10 years or half that time if you make it your full time job. That’s a serious commitment. And one that sounds overwhelming at first. But it’s simply the truth. All of the things I consider myself truly good at today came after very focused efforts to get good at them. Making mistakes, plenty of them, along the way.

I’ve been seriously making photographs for 15 years now and I can tell you that the reason I feel so confident about my art is that I know I’ve put in the time and I can still see improvement every year I work at it. When I began taking photos of my friends for practice in the early 90s, I knew I wanted to be better at it than I was, but there was no short cut. I simply had to put in the time and effort.

Half the battle was knowing what I was passionate about. What starts out as just a casual interest or hobby can grow into something extraordinary if you know what that thing is.

I’m surprised to hear that a lot of people don’t really have a passion or an interest that fuels their day. I certainly dabbled in many different areas in high school and college, but to look back at all of those interests, it’s not difficult to draw a line from those days to my present. They all involved creating something visually or musically or something expressive.

It’s possible to say that my 10,000 hours began much earlier than my professional photography career. Constantly narrowing down what I liked and what I didn’t like about the options available and those I created for myself.

I worked for free a lot of the time. Figuring when a position opened up, I’d be trained already and at the top of the list to be hired. It worked more often than not. It seemed like I was lucky, but I think it was more that I just showed up.

Part of the problem that I think has caused our current economic quagmire is that no one wants to put in the time anymore. Everyone is looking for the quick way to jump on the get rich bandwagon. No one wants to make anything anymore. We’ve become a nation of buying and selling abstract paper with very little meaning behind it.

And where has it gotten us?

The other book I picked up is one a friend bought for me years ago by Juila Cameron called The Artist’s Way. It’s another book I’ve taken a few things from in my journeys, although her use of god is a little heavy handed for me.

But one thing that does jump out from me in her book is her discussion of allowing even well meaning people and things to get in the way of our own artistic pursuits.

Many of us find that we have squandered our own creative energies by investing disproportionately in the lives, hopes, dreams and plans of others. Their lives have obscured and detoured our own.

It ties in nicely with the 10,000 hours theory. Don’t get distracted. It’s my own personal battle and although I’ve gotten better at it in the last few years, every once in a while I find myself out of balance and having to refine what I’m spending my energy on.

So as I take the first steps into a fresh new year, I don’t have a list of things I’m hoping to do in 2009, instead reminding myself of the things I simply won’t do.

And for those of you on Facebook who have been asking, there is now a Billy Sheahan Photography Fan Page.

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