If you’re like me and you’ve been working at developing a skill (such as writing) for any length of time, you’re bound to look up and see all the people who are highly accomplished at this skill, and feel envious.
I walk into bookstores and it’s almost more than I can bear. All those books! Written by someone else! Not a single title with your name on the cover.
(For a while, when I was racking up rejections for The Cruelest Month, I didn’t go to bookstores at all. It was too painful.)
. . . And if you’re like me, you read a masterpiece and feel tempted to bang your head on the table because you simply know that you’ll never, ever, in a hundred million, billion years, be able to write something that marvelous. Marvelous? You’ll barely be able to crack mediocre.
. . . And if you’re like me, you look at the author’s photograph. If the author is old, you’re relieved. If the author looks like one of those wonderful “child prodigies” who write and publish books while still in the young whippersnapper stage of life, you feel overwhelmed with despair. They’ve been zapped with miraculous abilities. They’re flying around in a super-tight costume that says “SuperWriter” on the front, zooming from one book signing to another, making a layover so Oprah can interview them.
. . . And if you’re nodding your head, you should be profoundly disturbed that you’re this much like me.
But you can also take heart. I’ve read a book that will help put this in perspective. (C’mon, you knew I would find a book to discuss, right?)
Bounce, by Matthew Syed, is about success: the science behind success. He focuses on athletes—he’s a former tennis table world champ himself—but the principles are applicable to many fields. His approach reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, but from a different angle. He also affirms Gladwell’s famous idea that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert. There were many intriguing ideas, but here’s one that floored me:
There really are no such things as child prodigies.
But what about—?!
I know what you’re thinking, but, no, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not an exception to the 10,000 hour rule.
His father, a composer and highly accomplished pedagogue, was interested in how to teach music to children. He was also a domineering father who started Wolfgang’s intense music training when the boy was three. One historian believes that young W had racked up some 6,000 hours of intense, focused practice by the time he was six.
By the time W composed his first masterpiece, he had more than ten thousand hours of playing time, and had racked up thousands of hours of composition time. (His first few compositions were arrangements of other people’s music and contain no or little original work.)
Compare his achievements at twenty-one to
other twenty-one-year old pianists,
and W looks like a child prodigy.
Compare his achievements to
other dedicated, equally gifted musicians who have practiced and composed
for the same number of hours,
and his achievements don’t look so surprising or startling.
So. Remember my theoretical young whippersnapper who wrote a novel? We can make some educated assumptions.
First, he or she had a parent who pushed them from an early age and provided the opportunity for that child to receive good instruction. It helps to have someone drive you to sports practice or piano lessons when you’re five, or to pay for art lessons from a good instructor or writing feedback from a knowledgeable editor when you’re seven. Not every parent has the time or means to do that.
Second, Mom and Dad granted the child the time to practice, even when it took away from other activities. No well-rounded scholar-athlete-humanitarian-artist with a roster of activities a mile long. No, thank you, my child can be obsessed with only one thing at a time!
Again, not every parent is willing to shove aside the notion of having a well-rounded child.
Nor is every parent willing to allow the child to neglect schoolwork in favor of writing a novel, or neglect chores in favor of sports training. (I’m not saying that a child couldn’t do both, but energy levels will be a factor. Intense, concentrated practice on any one task consumes a lot of energy.)
Nor am I saying this is healthy! Just this week, a mom told me about a girl at her daughter’s gymnastics facility. The child is homeschooled so she can practice gymnastics for fifteen hours a week. That’s at the gym. At home, the child practices and trains for another eighteen hours a week. That’s thirty-three hours of dedicated practice a week! How old is this girl?
My response: WHAT?!
Third, the training was in an area where the child was already gifted and already interested. Not every child who is trained like Mozart will end up being Mozart, Junior. Just like not every devoted athlete will end up as a pro, make the Olympic team, or even get a college scholarship. Innate talent does play a role. (And if the child isn’t interested, don’t bother.)
Fourth, look at the debut novel of this young whippersnapper and compare it to other debut novels. Is it really an impressive novel? Or is it impressive mostly because of the author’s age? Chances are, it’s not the best work this author will produce. Even my beloved Melville had to write Typee, Omoo, and Mardi before he cracked out Moby-Dick. While Typee was a bestseller, it wasn’t a masterpiece.
So if you’re struggling (like I am) not to be jealous of that young whippersnapper-writer, remember that.
And those masterpieces, the ones that make you cry from their beauty and craftsmanship—those did not happen overnight. They weren’t written in a week or a year or sometimes even in a decade. They were written through a life dedicated to finding the right words, in the right combination, and pinned on paper at the right moment.
Not all of us who dream of writing a masterpiece will do so. But we can be willing to take the time to write and fail, over and over, until we have used up every bit of our gift, the ones God gives us, and used it well.