Friday, November 21, 2008

10,000 Hours

Hallelujah, I'm not alone.

I saw Malcomb Gladwell on TV last night and wrote his book title down before I went to bed ("Outliers"). One of the many points this welcomed book makes is that it takes about 10,000 hours of study/practice for someone to become an expert at anything in life. This number is based on research documented by Gladwell, and it applies to everything from legal expertise to becoming a great painter, or, by implication, a great songwriter. Can we produce a late blooming genius like Cezanne? Yes, says Gladwell, if he/she is willing to put in the hours. [
Read Gladwell's blog on this subject]

I've been banging this drum steady for months now, trying not to tire you with the truth as I see it. We may not all have the time, but time is the essential factor in great songwriting. A great song can be written fairly quickly as I've said in many of my blog articles, but only after the preparation, the background, the study, the practice has been undertaken.

How soon can one put in his 10,000 hours? Let's assume you only have 10 hours per week to devote to songwriting. At that rate you'll need about 20 years of practice. Maybe you started when you were 15, so you can expect to reach your best at 35 (and that doesn't mean you won't continue to be at your best until you're 75). Why, then, do the major labels and publishers sign so many 21 year old artists and songwriters? Clearly the word "great" has lost some of it's meaning.

Are there exceptions such as Bob Dylan, who are so gifted at such an early age? Not necessarily. Maybe Bob worked a lot harder than most of us when he was young. Maybe he put in his hours at the feet of Seeger and the rest while we spent those years sitting on car hoods with a six pack.

Gladwell's book should come as encouraging news to most of you. If you've ever been made to feel that your time has passed because you're 29 and still unsigned, relax. You're still improving with age.

I have my own evidence in support of Gladwell's argument. I stared writing songs when I was about 15. I began writing full time when I was 27. Until that point I'd maybe put in only half of the necessary hours. I'd written a couple of good songs, even had a cut or two under my belt. But I knew I wasn't at my peak. When I began writing full time my skills improved very quickly, and by age 32 I'd nearly doubled my practice hours, and I'd written a song that I still rank as one of my best.

No matter how many voices we add to the growing criticism of music marketing trends at the major labels, it's unlikely that we'll change anything soon. For now, we can at least be content that we are in the right, and the data supports us. The industry should be mining 30-40 year olds, not 18-30 year olds. Or, if you want to market unripe talent, at least force these artists to sing songs written by those who have put in the practice hours.

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt


Anonymous said...

Bravo (exclaimed the 34 year old)!

Thanks Craig, as always, for speaking your gospel.

Tim Wheeler said...

Wasn't it Mini Pearl who, when asked how long it takes to write a song, replied, "Fifty years and 30 minutes."

Anonymous said...

Hi Craig,

I'm glad you posted this because I have been wanting to ask you the specifics of how you went about 'training' yourself to be a great songwriter. Would you mind giving us a short synopsis of maybe what your week would look like, and how you might spend a day when you went "full-time" with your writing? I hope this isn't too general of a question but it has been on my mind to ask you as I've been reading your blog, and wondered if it would help some of us focus our efforts.
Thank you!

Debra Manskey said...

Bravo indeed (said the about-to-turn 50yo!)
We exist in such an ageist industry where the 'wisdom of the elders' doesn't apply til we're dead!

Anonymous said...


I'm 58 and I'm thinking "Yippee" there's hope for me yet!" (If I live long enough.)

I've been writing since my teen years and I have not written a good one yet. But I keep working on them and that keeps the artistic part of me happy. Other wise I'd go ga-ga.

Your CD "No Road Back" is demonstrative of how one's artistry changes over time.

One day someone will ask me if I wrote "that song" that he/she sings (maybe a 21 year old) and I'll be able to say "Yes".

Until that day comes I'm putting my hours in.


Tunesmiths Cafe Radio
Tunesmiths Cafe Writers

Anonymous said...

A little over a year ago I read Blink, also by Gladwell (time to reread it), so I'm gonna shop for Outliers... great post, speaks to the heart of what's been driving me lately. Grind the axe, chop wood, make a fire... repeat. Wish I could say I'm diligent as I ought to be, taking it one day at a time.

With all the chaff on the web today, it's good to know where to come get my fiber =)

Anonymous said...

Hi Craig,

this is a late comment for this post, but I found an article called "Late Bloomers" written by Malcolm Gladwell's via his website and blog. It originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine. It complements what you are talking about here and is a great read-thought you and others here might enjoy reading it. Here's the link-