Doing time

By | 19 April 2011

For the last six weeks, I’ve had a hard working left hand.    I am right handed, but with a nod to my Latin A level, I might note that the left hand has become quite dextrous, that it’s even quite sinister how dextrous it has become (ho ho ho).  While my right hand has been rendered useless by the plaster cast on my broken wrist, it’s as if my left hand has come into its own.
‘See,’ I imagine it murmuring, ‘I can do anything Clever Clogs over there can do, but you never give me a chance.  I could be just as fast, and just as useful, but you never gave me the practice!’
Now that pressing the right hand back into service hurts so much that I seem to spend my time wincing and whimpering, I realise how I have come to depend on the left hand, and you know what, it really has risen to the occasion.  I now reach automatically for the kettle with the left hand, and the pouring is just as efficient as it was when the right hand was fit.  It’s quite possible I will continue to make more use of the left hand even when all is healed and lifting a kettle with the right hand no longer makes me howl and drop it.
I realise that all of us develop a dominant hand, and I do know that something between 70 and 90% of humanity is right-handed.  But the little glimpse of what the left hand can do for me when it gets the chance has been revelatory.  And one of the things it confirms is the currently developing theory that talent is less important than hard work and effort.  Perhaps my hands started out equal, but one has had a lifetime of working harder – hence its dexterity.
The first time I came across the notion that geniuses – in many diverse fields – may be more a product of perseverance and application than of innate talent, was in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Outliers’.  He is a very persuasive exponent of the need for anyone who would like to be good at anything putting in about ten years of practice to make it happen.
He is in fact quite clear about ten thousand hours, probably taking ten years, being an almost magical length of time to achieve excellence and mastery in whatever has appealed to us enough for us to think it’s worth the time and commitment.  He quotes research in which musicians in the Berlin Academy of Music in the early 1990s were divided into three groups – the stars with the potential to become world-class soloists, the ‘merely good’, and those unlikely to play professionally but likely to teach (and I’m not going to stop to discuss what that says about people who can going on to do, and people who can’t becoming teachers – let’s just not go there).
When they asked the students how much time they put into practice, they discovered that when very young, aged about 5 – 7, they all practised about the same length of time.  But by the age of 8, the ‘stars’ were putting in more hours a week, and the hours built up as they grew older – 8 hours a week by age 12, 16 hours a week by age 14.  By the age of 20, they were putting in 30 hours a week of serious practice.
Total hours done by each of the groups by the time they came to the academy? The stars had clocked up ten thousand hours of practice; the good students had done eight thousand hours; and the probably-going-to-teach students, had accomplished just four thousand hours.
Even more interesting was that the researchers found no ‘naturals’, musicians who, as Gladwell puts it, ‘floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.’  And the people at the top did not work just harder or even much harder than their peers, ‘They work much, much harder.’
The theory of effort and application being probably more important than innate ability, a gift from the fairy godmother at the cradle, a talent inherited from a gene pool the way you might have your mother’s cheek bones or your father’s height, is hugely important in schools.  It is, if you like, the greatest message of hope.
I can imagine that it might also be a depressing message – ‘What? How many hours? To be really good? But if I’m playing the violin thirty hours a week, or diving or chasing a tennis ball, when  will I have time to – lie in bed, play on the computer, date girls – just live??!!  No way!’
For many youngsters, such a possibly monastic existence might hold little appeal.  But the up-side of this theory is that it’s your choice.  If you would rather lie in bed, or become a whole different person in your computer-gaming world, fine.  Do that.  And the world won’t come to an end and your life will pan out in whatever way it does.
But if you would really like to sing like Catherine Jenkins, or play tennis like Venus and Serena Williams, or race like Lewis Hamilton or play golf like Tiger Woods (who was given a golf club five days before his first birthday – his first! – and played his first round of golf at the age of 2) then start putting in the hours.  Because whatever your talent, you’re going to need time, and commitment, and perseverance, and a willingness to find the time somehow – as swimmers do, who clock up miles in the pool while the rest of us are having a  lie-in, or just thinking about breakfast.
Making sportsmen professional, as Britain has in recent times, will surely allow them to put in the hours to bring home the medals in 2012.  Listening to speakers from the cycling team, you would recognise their messianic pursuit of excellence via a rigorous training regime which you could not follow while holding down a job and earning a living. So if the athletes have the inclination, and the latent talent or physique, we pay them to put in the time.  It’s a far cry from Torville and Dean and ‘Bolero’,  for which they won gold while working as a policeman and a secretary, as I recall, and only able to use an ice rink without the public getting in their way so long as they trained in the small hours of the morning.
There’s a romance about that story – putting in the hours whatever the obstacles – but it’s not a model for today’s stars. But boarding schools might well be part of the mix for the future – diver Tom Daley boards, and look at the hours in the pool or on the diving board that gives him.  When the medals are counted for 2012, many of them will be held by athletes who grabbed the chance of a boarding place and facilities on site, and expert coaches and supporters, so that the hours you and I might squander – travelling, socialising, making phone calls, drinking coffee, watching ‘Dr Who’ – could be put to really good use:  getting from ‘good’ to ‘world class’.
It is, as you might say, just a matter of time.

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