In his 2003 book, There Are No Shortcuts, East Los Angeles master teacher Rafe Esquith speaks of his struggle to communicate to his students the level of commitment and self-discipline required to go beyond mediocrity and achieve excellence. “They seemed too easily pleased with their efforts; if they got most of their arithmetic correct, they figured that was better than they had done the year before and they were off the hook. . . how many children pursue their dreams anymore? How can you go after things when you’re sitting in front of a television set or computer screen?”
He accompanied forty-five students to a concert, and they were invited backstage afterward to meet world-renowned cellist Lynn Harrell. When asked how he could make such beautiful music, Harrell responded, “Well, there are no shortcuts.”
That slogan became his inspiration to help his students make it to the next level—and the next, and the next.
Many of us have a desire to be good at something. We make excuses why we are not. “I’m not a born teacher like Rafe.” “I don’t have Lang Lang’s musical talent.” “I’m just not as artistic as da Vinci.”
The biggest difference between us average people and the great masters is: they put in the work. Even when they aren’t feeling particularly inspired. They pursue excellence for its own sake.
I had the pleasure of meeting Rafe Esquith and some of his students at a book signing. The students performed some music they’d added to a Shakespeare play they’d presented at school. Their guitar prowess was amazing. These fifth graders played much better than me—and I have a Masters degree in music education!
After the presentation, while I was waiting in line to get my book signed by the author, I asked one of the students, “How much do you practice your guitar every day?”
“Three to four hours. Usually four,” he answered. Hmmm. I practiced guitar half an hour a day.
In order to have that much time available for practice, that fifth grader has to forsake some of the other pursuits of typical ten-year-olds, like video games, computer time, television, or hanging out with friends. That’s a big sacrifice—but the payoff is a high level of skill on guitar.
In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000-Hour Rule. He quotes the neurologist Daniel Levitin as saying, “The emerging picture from such studies [of people who are undeniably the best in their field] is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. . . But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.”
Gladwell uses the Beatles as an example of this principle. To baby boomers, their explosion into the music scene seemed sudden and immediate. It was anything but.
“The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg [Germany] five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing.
All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.”
The Beatles certainly put in their 10,000 hours before they became famous. And Rafe Esquith’s guitar students? 10,000 hours divided by 4 hours a day = 2500 days or 6.85 years. By contrast, 10,000 hours divided by 30 minutes a day = 20,000 days or 54.8 years. So who has a better chance of becoming a really good guitarist, me or those fifth graders?
The 10,000 Hour Rule applies to everything that requires skill, not just music, but art, sports, math, learning a foreign language, hammering nails, you name it. There are no shortcuts. You have to put in the time.
When I resigned from my teaching job three and a half years ago (click here to read about my transition from teacher to non-teacher), I thought maybe I’d write again. However, I couldn’t get going. My brain was like a desert; I didn’t have even a drop of an idea. Sitting in front of a blank Word document was absolutely excruciating. But you can’t be a writer without writing.
The 500 Word Challenge from author Jeff Goins finally got me out of my dry spell. During the month-long challenge, I wrote almost every day. Some of the pieces eventually became posts on Doing Life Together and ARHtistic License.
Sitting down to write daily helped me make writing a habit. It got me over the hump; it started the juices flowing. I think my skill has really grown in the last couple of years because I am spending hours every day articulating the thoughts coursing through my mind.
What is it that we say to dogs when we want them to stay put? “Sit. Stay.” That is my shorthand for showing up to do the work. Sit down at the computer. Stay there until I have met my daily goal. Or until it’s time for dinner, whichever comes first.
Have you committed to the practice of writing daily? Have you noticed yourself improving over time? Share with the Writer’s Path community by commenting below.
Alternately titled “Sit. Stay.”
Former elementary general music teacher ARHuelsenbeck blogs about the arts and the creative process at ARHtistic License. She is currently writing a YA mystical fantasy and a Bible study guide, with mystery and MG drafts waiting in the wings.