“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
– Miles Davis
Is there a way to quantify the moment when someone transitions into greatness? Can we package it up and brand it? Sell it to the masses or create some vocational school centered around breaking personal creative barriers?
Want to be the next Jackson Pollack? Justin Timberlake? Rihanna? Well you’ve come to the right place.
In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell went ahead and tried to quantify it with his ten thousand hour rule. We all know the cited example of The Beatles playing in Germany every night of the week for several years, carefully and painstakingly honing their craft before ever setting foot on American soil and becoming the international sensation forever etched into musical history.
And so, according to Gladwell, ten thousand is the magic number where ordinary transcends into greatness.
I mean it sounds good, comfortable, even “doable” if you’re prone to the occasional manic episode such as myself; amped up on a delicious chemical imbalance, a mental Molotov cocktail of grandiosity and delusion.
Ten thousand hours. That’s all it takes. All I have to do is pick something I’m good at or something I enjoy doing and plug away at it for eight hours a day, every day of the week for three and a half years and I’ll graduate from the Gladwellian School of the Arts destined for greatness.
But Gladwell is a master marketer, and a goddamn fraud.
He presents you with something rather benign and then he raises his nasally voice and says, “Everything you ever knew about that thing you thought you had figured out is wrong!”
Your mind is now, effectively and forever, blown.
You lean back in your chair with your eyes wide open and your hand smacks your forehead and you say to yourself, “Oh my God he’s right! I don’t know anything. Please Malcolm, tell me. Tell me now, dammit! TELL ME!”
Gladwell is brilliant at catering to one of the most fundamental characteristics of human nature: the need to know. It’s the essential building block to any dramatic situation in story telling: you present a juicy-enough question and the audience is hooked. Will Ross kiss Rachel? Will Walter White get away with it? What does Jon Hamm have in his pants?
The Media use this device every day, except they ratchet it up with a heavy dosage of fear to guarantee viewership. Is this the storm of the century? What you’re eating could kill you. At eleven.
At the same time Gladwell presents you with something that is utterly preposterous yet simultaneously juuuuuuuust out of reach. If Gladwell had said, “These are people you’ll never be like because you’re simply genetically and mentally inferior,” he’d never get close to bestseller numbers. This is a marketing and mass-distraction phenomena Noam Chomsky discusses in his book “Manufacturing Consent” but unfortunately we don’t have the time to get into that because it’s usually around this point I really start to feel the need for an editor.
“Bring it on home, Joe!” she’d say to me, slightly seizing from mainlining a Venti Triple Shot Mocha and tapping her watch.
Gladwell’s not entirely wrong: There’s merit in taking the time to learn your craft. But my problem isn’t with the hours, it’s the assumption that greatness follows.
I’m not sure I know what it means to be great or when, as a culture, we went from striving to live a good life to striving to be the best at every goddamn thing we do. I do know that I’ve tried my whole life to be great and fell short. Over and over again. And that rift between what I expected of myself and reality created more pain than I’d like to remember.
But maybe it’s not even about being great at all.
Maybe greatness is just another marketing tool, a distraction, something to strive for. Maybe it’s about something else entirely. Maybe it’s just about being the being the best me.
Truthfully, I think Miles said it best:
“Man, sometimes you takes long time to sound like yourself.”
Oh and I just totally Gladwelled you.