Ten Thousand Hours?

by Guest Author Guest Blog. Posted on February 24, 2012.

We are pleased to present this guest blog post from one of the May conference’s featured speakers, Steven Barnes. You have quite a treat waiting for you if you have never heard Steven Barnes speak! He is inspirational, wise, and accessible. We are thrilled that he is able to take the time to travel across the country to share with our conference-goers his wisdom on The Hero’s Journey and Writing the Thriller. For more information on Steve’s conference workshops, please click here.


 Guest Blog by Steven Barnes

Probably because I’m one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Write on the River gathering, I’ve been asked to respond to a thoughtful blog post (by a guy named Steve, no less!).

The blog post was, specifically, a newbie writer thinking about all of the obstacles to “making it,” given that it requires, on average, 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in anything. By “Steve’s” reckoning, that would place him in his 70’s or even 80’s before breaking into his career.

Let’s explore his assumptions, which are excellent, but not written in stone. The first is that it requires 10,000 hours of practice to gain mastery in a given subject. This is basically true, and I love the quantification. Cuts through the B.S. Not willing to put in that kind of time? Get out of the way and leave room for those of us who are.

But, that said… if you’re willing, it is possible to slice thousands of hours off that average. In fact, your intent should be to not be average. Right? The term “average” has nothing to do with individuals. You might never make it. Or, you might hit it “out of the park” your first time at back.

It takes the average person four years to earn a black belt in the average martial art. Took me seventeen years. But neither number tells the real story. If it takes 10,000 hours to achieve “mastery” in the martial arts–call that, say, a 5th degree black belt–then would it make sense to say: “well, then, I guess I’ll never learn to defend myself”?

Not at all. A single weekend of “padded attacker” style training can totally change your life. In reality, about twenty hours of focused training, backed by powerful emotions and a total commitment, can out-perform years of ordinary more “theoretical” training.

And when it comes right down to it, “Mastery” is not required for excellence, or success. Competence is probably enough–and that might not be more than 1k, not 10k at all.

Let’s look at things Steve can do to speed up his process.

1) He wants to write a novel, but has never published. Wrong. Start with short stories. The learning curve is hugely faster with short stories, and you still learn everything you need to write books. I’ve heard every excuse, believe me. If you’re already working on a book, then split your time 50-50% between the two forms. Part of the psychology here can be applied to any other task. When confronted by a vast task, break it down into smaller component tasks that can be finished in a week, or better still, a single day.

2) Look for skills you already possess, and transfer them to the new area. Write about what you know rather than immersing yourself in new research. Do you have discipline? Time management skills? Insight into human psychology? Do people say you’re funny? Sexy? Have you watched a parent die? Raised a child? Created a business? Learned to ride a bicycle? Can you enter “flow” state easily?

Whatever your current life, if you can find the arenas in which you already have talent and/or experience, you can “cluster” them to increase your association and excitement, and hence your focus. You’ll be thinking about your project all the time. And that cuts hours off your total.

In my current screen project I’m combining my love of martial arts, 60’s-70’s era Los Angeles, personal development, human adulthood, and tribalism into a cocktail that is keeping me up nights!

3) Concentrate on the process rather than the product. If you want to beat the 10k threshold, stop watching the clock. Stop caring whether or not you get there. Concentrate on “the thing itself”–the day to day process of writing. Or performing any other skill. Your focus has to be on this moment of your writing, not some future goal. The reward must be the total immersion in the flow of work, not on what someone else might think of what you have done.

“Act now. There is never any time but now. And there never will be any time but now… you cannot act where you are not.”– Wallace Wattles

You have to be “in the zone” to access your highest skills. Keeping one eye on where you’re going, rather than where you are, automatically takes you out of flow. Your attention should be on setting up a daily process, what I call a “machine”, that will take you to your level of excellence. Then, merely be certain your “machine” runs perfectly every day, and you will be doing everything it is possible to do to max out your skills.

2) Here is a general example of what I call a “machine” in the arena of writing:

  • Write 1000 words a day.
  • Read 10,000 words a day.
  • Write a story a week, or every other week.
  • Finish what you write.
  • Put it in the mail (submit it for publication).
  • Keep it in the mail. When it comes back, send it right back out. Keep records.


The above program can easily be designed to require about an hour a day. Thirty minutes of reading, thirty minutes of writing. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I create rough draft, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I polish the previous day’s work.

The point is to create a daily ritual which, if executed properly, will take you to your goal. Set it up so that your goal is within your capacity to finish with style. Write one page, read ten pages, etc.

The idea is simple: concentrate on what there is to be done today. Don’t worry about yesterday’s failures or tomorrow’s problems. Fulfill today’s tasks perfectly, and do the same tomorrow, and tomorrow.

It is impossible to succeed every day, and fail at life.



Television scenarist (“Twilight Zone,” “Outer Limits”) and NY Times Bestselling novelist ( “The Cestus Deception”, “The Legacy of Heorot”) Steven Barnes offers totally free writing tips on his LIFEWRITING mailing list, available here.