Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Creativity and 10,000 Hours

Due to the fact that this post is rather long, I've broken it up into sections to make it a bit easier to follow. Unwieldy though it may seem to be, I wanted to keep it as one blog post rather than dividing it into several shorter ones. Every few years we get another book telling us that if we'll put in our 10,000 hours, we might become experts, too. But the subject is more complex than that, and I wanted to lay it out as fully as I can. And for those of you who want to explore it on your own, I've provided links to what I have found available online.

My last blog post, "Will Your 10,000 Hours Be Obsolete," was about specialization. I was asking (1) whether specializing in too narrow a field puts you at risk of spending years in an area that might become obsolete and (2) how you can prepare for a field that has yet to be invented.

Some of the comments got me thinking about the subject in even more detail. One of the questions: Are success and skill necessarily linked? In terms of celebrity and pop music, most people would say no. You can become quite famous, and sometimes make money from that fame, without having to the best at anything. Or maybe you are the best at something, but not what we commonly measure. For example, maybe entertainers who do well have spent their whole lives learning how to audience-ready. Maybe they are, in fact experts at something, just not necessarily anything artistic.

I was trying to think of another example, besides easy-to-perform music or reality TV, where training has value but perhaps does not require 10,000 hours to elevate you to the top of your profession. Acting came to mind. There are child actors who have had no acting experience but are cast in movies and become instant stars.

What exactly is an expert actor? Does the training mean you can play any role? I can't think of many actors who would fit that description, but perhaps they haven't been given the opportunity.

What would years of acting training give you? I assume you'd acquire skills related to professionalism (e.g, learning how to memorize better; learning how to move on stage and project your voice; learning how to play love scenes; learning how to react to the unexpected).

But do actors become better over time? It's often hard to tell because acting is so role-dependent. An actor can leave a great impression in early roles and then be written off in later years because of bad roles. And we often have differing standards for actors. Some we like to see in a variety of roles and others we want to see essentially play the same role over and over again.

We have awards for acting, but they aren't necessarily given out for expertise. The "best" actors don't always win. Perhaps not surprisingly, there isn't really a lot information available about expertise in acting.
... except for [Helga Noice's] research dating from the late 1980s--virtually no studies on the cognitive processes of professional actors can be found in the literature. These experts not only routinely memorize hours of verbal material in a very short time, but they retrieve it verbatim along with the accompanying gestures, movements, thoughts, and emotions of the characters. "The Nature of Expertise in Professional Acting," Thinking & Reasoning Arena.
So if success and expertise aren't necessarily linked, then what, exactly, is expertise?

K. Anders Ericsson, who most people cite when discussing the years of training it takes to become an expert, says that you can't establish expertise in every field.
How, then, can you tell when you’re dealing with a genuine expert? Real expertise must pass three tests. First, it must lead to performance that is consistently superior to that of the expert’s peers. Second, real expertise produces concrete results. Brain surgeons, for example, not only must be skillful with their scalpels but also must have successful outcomes with their patients. A chess player must be able to win matches in tournaments. Finally, true expertise can be replicated and measured in the lab. As the British scientist Lord Kelvin stated, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” "The Making of an Expert," Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007.
Here's another definition:
Characteristics of Experts (Glaser & Chi, 1988)
• Experts excel mainly in their own domains
• Experts perceive large meaningful patterns in their domains
• Experts are fast
• Experts seem to utilize working and LTM [long-term memory] effectively
• Experts see and represent a problem in their domain at a deeper level than novices
• Experts spend a great deal of time analyzing a problem quantitatively
• Experts have self-monitoring skills
(Glaser and Chi are cited by many authors, but here is my source of that information: "Expertise and Creativity.")
As it turns out that a lot of what passes for expertise isn't. Studies have shown that:
  • highly experienced computer programmers are not always better than computer science students,
  • physics professors are not always better than students on introductory physics problems,
  • clinical psychology skills are not related to training and experience,
  • extensive software design experience isn't related to proficiency,
  • wine experts aren't better at judging wines than regular wine drinkers,
  • well-trained financial advisors aren't better at forecasting than novices,
  • general physicians become less accurate at diagnosing heart sounds and x-rays the longer they practice.
    (Ericsson cites all of the above examples, including bibliographic info, in "The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance," The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 2006.)

  • Ericsson says that if you have experienced people who don't do any better than the average person, then they aren't experts. This seems to provide a good loophole to explain why average people can sometimes beat those with more experience. What he seems to be saying is that his theories are right, and when there appear to be exceptions, the exceptions don't count.

    Clifford Morris points out another issue with some of the conclusions about experts and extensive training:
    Taken together, these findings demonstrate that experts presumably have chosen to do what they love. And why do they (or did they) love what they do? Because they were good at doing it -- relative to doing other things -- in the first place. Yes, experts become experts because they study and practice that at which they eventually excel. But they choose to study and practice that which they like to do, and they like to do those things for which they had some talent to begin with. From this argument, one could easily conclude that the editors and chapter authors have proved nothing beyond what most of us know from experience, casual observation, and good old sound common sense. Experts are born with certain talents and then they become experts because they cultivate those talents. Experts are born and made. But first, they must be born with a degree of talent that allows them to make themselves into experts. "Hard Work Tops Talent if Talent Doesn't Work Hard: A Book Review of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," 2008.
    Others have also suggested that those who excel start with some inherent advantages. Two examples:
  • Higher-level musicians report significantly higher mean levels on innate characteristics such as general intelligence and music audiation, in addition to higher levels of accumulated practice time. "Becoming an expert in the musical domain: It takes more than just practice," (Ruthsatz; Detterman; Griscom; Cirullo) Intelligence 36, 2008.
  • In the language of logic, researchers generally agree that deliberate practice is necessary; disagreement exists regarding whether it is sufficient. "Nature and nurture interact to create expert performers,” (Joseph Baker) High Ability Studies, June 2007.
  • Dean Keith Simonton is another who doesn't believe practice alone is sufficient. Here is a summation of his position:
    Geniuses are those who "have the intelligence, enthusiasm, and endurance to acquire the needed expertise in a broadly valued domain of achievement" and who then make contributions to that field that are considered by peers to be both "original and highly exemplary." "Is Genius Born or Can It Be Learned?" Time, 2/13/09.
    Yet another wrinkle has been suggested by Rosemary Reilly. She says that when the activity is ill-defined, experts don't do any better in decision-making than novices, and that groups of people pooling their collective experience will do as well or better than an individual expert.
    Expertise need not be embodied in a single individual, but can be collectively created through processes of reflective dialogue. "Expertise and Creativity"
    So, based on Reilly's concept, if we don't know what it takes to be an expert in certain fields, then potential "experts" don't necessarily need to have 10,000 hours of personal experience. The whole movement towards crowdsourcing seems to suggest that we are willing to substitute the knowledge of many different people for the knowledge and expertise of just a few. It's a way to harness the power of the network to generate just as many ideas as tapping into the mind of a few experts.

    In fact, the company InnoCentive is based on the concept that people who specialize in certain fields may be less equipped to solve problems and create innovation than motivated people who haven't pursued traditional paths to domain-specific expertise. The site posts problems that need to be solved and then offers financial rewards to those who find solutions.

    According to this article, "If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone," InnoCentive problem-solvers come from 175 countries. More than one-third have doctorates, which means that nearly two-thirds don't. InnoCentive founder Alph Bingham says in this recent video, "Some Problems Are Too Important to Leave to the Experts," that if you think of traditional experts as the head of a long tail, then 95% of the ideas are coming from people in the long tail. For example, Dwayne Spradlin, president and CEO of InnoCentive, described a request to find a biomarker for ALS.
    What’s amazing about this was that solutions were coming from not necessarily from the medical field. The solutions were coming in from people they had never heard of before—computer scientists, experts in bio informatics who were suggesting algorithmic approaches, machine manufacturers who knew enough about the disease to say the following kind of approach might provide a highly predictive model of who might be susceptible to this disease. They were getting solutions from outside the establishment that ended up generating some of the most innovative thinking in that field in recent years. "Crowdsourcing Innovation: Q&A with Dwayne Spradlin of InnoCentive," Fast Company, 12/15/08.
    Even more remarkable, Karim R. Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School who studied InnoCentive
    found that “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it,” often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose. "If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone," New York Times, 7/22/08.
    It will be interesting to see how crowdsourcing and collaboration shape our concepts of expertise in the future.

    The next phase of my research involved finding out about expertise in creative fields.

    According to Mark Runco, Ericsson doesn't focus much on creativity.
    ... Ericsson et al. largely ignore the role of creativity. This is unfortunately not uncommon in studies of achievement. There are numerous possible paths to achievement, some individuals attaining it by virtue of their creativity, but others by virtue of their traditional intelligence, charisma, or contrarian ways. Not all eminent persons are creative (Runco, 1995). Yet some are, which means that achievement cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the possible or occasional role of creativity.
    ... In Ericsson et al.’s own words, ‘the expert performance approach starts by identifying reproducibly superior performance and then works backwards to explain the development of the mediating mechanisms’. The methodology is in some ways (e.g., experimental control) impressive, but again, just because one path leads somewhere (to expertise), this does not mean there are no other paths. "Achievement sometimes requires creativity,"High Ability Studies, June 2007.
    Simonton, cited above, says that fields differ in the types of knowledge required. Here's a summary of Simonton's position by Jonah Lehrer:
    While physics, math and poetry have always been dominated by their most inexperienced practitioners, other disciplines seem to benefit from middle age. Mr. Simonton suggests that people working in fields such as biology, history, novel-writing and philosophy might not peak until their late 40s. ...

    What accounts for these variations? Mr. Simonton suggests that they're caused by intrinsic features of the disciplines. Those fields with a logically consistent set of principles, such as physics and chess, tend to encourage youthful productivity, since it's relatively easy to acquire the necessary expertise. "Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity in Science," Wall Street Journal, 2/19/10.
    It would appear that there are not universally accepted concepts of expertise and creativity. There are at least two groups -- the "expert" experts (e.g., Ericsson) and the "creativity" experts (e.g., Runco) -- and they aren't necessarily working together.

    So given that, let's backtrack a bit and try to define creativity.

    Robert Weisberg, who has written extensively on the subject, says this:
    Most critically, we will not be able to determine definitively what products are creative and what individuals are creative. This problem arises because the value of a product can change over time: an artistic innovation valued by one generation can be considered sentimental treacle by the next; a scientific innovation considered groundbreaking by one generation can be considered nonsense by the next. Theorizing about creativity will therefore be built on a constantly shifting foundation, as individuals and their works become “creative” and “not creative” over generations. We would continuously have to consider whether our previously established conclusions hold for the now-creative people, which is an impossible situation; we need criteria that do not change over time. The goal-directedness and novelty of some product, once determined, cannot change, so we should be able to determine the phenomena and individuals to study. Thus, I assume that any innovation generated as part of the goal-directed activity of an individual is, ipso facto, creative, whether or not it has value to anyone. The value of a person’s work may change from one generation to the next, but its creativity cannot. "Expertise and Reason in Creative Thinking: Evidence from Case Studies and the Laboratory," Creativity and Reason in Cognitive Development, 2006.
    As an example of how he would link creativity and expertise, he provides
    an outline of a situation facing a poet who has recently given birth and who is stimulated to write a set of poems expressing her feelings about the experience and its implications. One can here also hypothesize a set of domains of expertise that the poet might bring to bear on her project. In addition, she may use logic as the basis for constructing aspects of her new work.

    Science, Mathematics, Logic
    Other Arts
    Other Poets' Other Works
    Poet's Other Works
    Other Poets' Works on Giving Birth
    Poet's Own Prior Works on Giving Birth
    Poet's Ideas and Feelings on Giving Birth
    So Weisberg suggests you can start with some general knowledge and then use your expertise within your art to produce your creation. One of the better papers I've seen on combining creativity with diverse sources of inspiration came from a study of 11 Finnish product designers. The authors, Björklund and Eloranta, pulled some good insights from the research.
    The experts pick up ideas from diverse sources: hobbies, previous projects, neighboring fields, vacation trips... They see potential and analogies in even seemingly unrelated concepts and then develop the idea further. "Fostering innovation: What we can learn from experts and expertise."
    Another who has explored this concept is Robert Scott Root-Bernstein, a biologist, historian, and artist, who feels creativity, music, and science serve each other well.
    ... the histories of music and quantum physics are inextricably linked ... Einstein [said] that his own relativity theory "... occurred to me by intuition. And music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception."

    ... no one with monomaniacal interests or limited to a single talent or skill can, to my mind, be creative, since nothing novel or worthy can emerge without making surprising and effective links between things ... To create is to combine, to connect, to analogize, to link and to transform.

    ... Creativity comes from finding the unexpected connections, from making use of skills, ideas, insights and analogies from disparate fields. Thus, my concept of correlative talents and its own correlate, synosia, help explain for me why true creative ability is so rare. Of the set of multi-talented people, who are in turn a subset of all the people who are singly talented, only some will develop the necessary integration of thinking modes necessary to make their talents interactive.

    ... We will therefore be able to recognize the greatest breakthroughs in the use of the human imagination precisely by their inability to be subsumed into the existing categories of sciences or arts. Each such advance will create new possibilities that we could not even have imagined before ... "Music, Creativity and Scientific Thinking," Leonardo, 34:1, 2001.
    Here's more on Einstein and his relationship to music.
    For Einstein, insight did not come from logic or mathematics. It came, as it does for artists, from intuition and inspiration. As he told one friend, "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge." Elaborating, he added, "All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration.... At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason." Thus, his famous statement that, for creative work in science, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." ...

    In other interviews, he attributed his scientific insight and intuition mainly to music. "If I were not a physicist," he once said, "I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.... I get most joy in life out of music." His son, Hans, amplified what Einstein meant by recounting that "[w]henever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties." After playing piano, his daughter Maja added, he would get up saying, "There, now I've got it." Something in the music would guide his thoughts in new and creative directions. "Einstein On Creative Thinking: Music and the Intuitive Art of Scientific Imagination," Psydir News. (Check the article for the sources of the Einstein quotes.)
    While I am talking about what it means to be creative, I'll point you to another resource. Runco, who I have cited above, wrote a book, Creativity: Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice, which concludes with the chapter, "What Creativity Is and What It is Not." He makes a distinction between creativity and related concepts: intelligence, imagination, originality, innovation, invention, discovery, serendipity, intentions, and adaptability. So keep in mind that what some of us might call creativity isn't considered to be such by those who study it.

    While they write about different topics, some "creativity" experts do agree with some of the "expert" experts that you can't be creative without a deep knowledge of your field.
    A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce that system within his or her mind. In other words, the person must learn the rules and the content of the domain, as well as the criteria of selection, the preferences of the field. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, (Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi) 1996.
    Weisberg believes in the 10-year-rule, but before he makes his case, he reviews a variety of theories:
  • He starts with those who say that creative thoughts are so unprecedented that they aren't based on what has come before. Therefore extensive training is of limited help.
  • Then he discusses the inverted-U concept which says that you need a certain basis of knowledge to create something new, but too much knowledge will lock you in to old thinking. Therefore your most creative point is somewhere between too little and too much.
  • Finally, to reinforce his own thoughts on the subject, he mentions a number of studies which show that people in various creative fields did not turn out any memorable works until a period of years after they began.
    ... if one does not know the discipline, one cannot go beyond it. "Creativity and Knowledge: A Challenge to Theories," Handbook of Creativity, 1999.
    Similarly, Richard Hass (who worked with Weisberg) offers this summary of creativity theories:
  • Productive thinking: "creativity represents a complete break from past knowledge."
    ... the criteria for productive creativity in music are as follows: (1) increasing novelty of musical elements in songs as career progresses, (2) little or no reproduction of musical elements already used by the composer, and (3), more novelty and variation of musical components in hit songs compared with non-hit songs. Development of Creative Expertise in Music: A Quantitative Analysis of the Songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, 2009.

  • Reproductive thinking: "creators develop a core collection of kernel ideas early in their careers and continually recombine those ideas in novel ways." He says that this is common in popular music. For example, rock draws upon blues, rhythm and blues, folk, and so on. "... the stylistic changes were not breaks with the past, but recombination of past ideas."
    ... the criteria for reproductive creativity in music are as follows: (1) consistency of musical components across songs (2) little or no introduction of new musical kernel ideas throughout later stages of career, and (3), hit songs should feature more continuity with past knowledge than non-hits.
  • Field specialization: "creativity represents an interaction between the individual creator, the domain in which the creator works, and the field, or collection of institutions that evaluate creative products." He says that success in popular music tends to reinforce doing more of the same rather than coming up with anything truly innovative. He uses Lou Reed as an example of someone who didn't follow the "more of the same" approach, and as result was not a commercial success. In hindsight Reed is now considered a major influence.

  • Ericsson makes the distinction between play (which is largely unstructured), deliberate practice (where you try out different approaches to explore and see what works), and work (where you are expected to perform at a high level and not make mistakes). Of these three periods of activity, the primary opportunity for creativity is going to be during the deliberate practice days. If you play too much or work too much, you may not develop anything new.

    He also says that if experts don't push themselves throughout their careers and instead reach a point where they rest on their laurels and don't continue to improve, they are in a stage of "arrested development." Such a description would be applicable to anyone in a creative field who appears to have hit a plateau.

    To reinforce the idea that creative people need years of training to become great, here are the results of quite a few studies.
    J. R. Hayes (1981) confirmed that 10 years' experience is necessary in another domain, musical composition. He calculated an average of about 20 years from the time individuals started to study music until they first composed an outstanding piece of music. ... Those who started at ages younger than 6 years did not write their first eminent composition until 16.5 years later; those who started between ages 6 and 9 and older than 10 years of age required 22 and 21.5 years, respectively to compose their first distinguished work. ...

    Long periods of necessary preparation can also be inferred for writers and scientists, although the starting point of their is more difficult to determine. ... Raskin (1936), who analyzed the 120 most important scientists and 123 most famous poets and authors in the 19th century, found that the average age at which scientists published their first work was 25.2; poets and authors published their first work at the average age of 24.2. Moreover, many years of preparation preceded first publication. The average ages at which the same individuals produced their greatest work were 35.4 for scientists and 34.3 for poets and authors. That is, on average, more than 10 years elapsed between these scientists' and authors' first work and their best work. "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance," (Ericsson; Krampe; Tesch-Romer) Psychological Review, 1993, No. 3.
    John R. Hayes looked 76 classical composers (who created more than 500 master works). He noted the time between when they began studying music and their first notable work (defined by at least five recordings of the composition in the Schwann record catalog). Out of those 500+ works, only three were composed before year ten of the composer's training, and those came in years eight and nine. "Cognitive Processes in Creativity," Handbook of Creativity, 1989.

    Hayes also looked at the careers of 131 painters. In every case it was at least six years from the time they started painting until they produced a notable work (defined by being reproduced in at least one of several standard histories of painting). "Cognitive Processes in Creativity," Handbook of Creativity, 1989.

    Nina Wishbow studied 66 poets. None had a noteworthy poem (defined by being included in a major anthology) written earlier than five years into the poet's career. Fifty-five didn't have one until ten years into their careers. Studies of Creativity in Poets, 1988.

    Scott Kaufman and James Kaufman analyzed 215 contemporary fiction writers and found that on average it took 10.6 years between their first published work and their best published work, with the fewest being zero years, and the most being 45 years. The average age at first publication was 32.8 years, with the youngest being 20 and the oldest being 61. The average age for the “best” publication was 43.4 years, with the youngest being 21 and the oldest being 74. The average writer produced 10.0 works of fiction and 12.4 total works.

    Perhaps relevant to today's culture is this:
    ... authors who were born later were more likely to debut and peak younger, and the number of years separating their debut and peak was smaller than those authors who were born earlier. This suggests that perhaps as time progresses, the gap between first and best work decreases. "Ten Years to Expertise, Many More to Greatness: An Investigation of Modern Writers," Journal of Creative Behavior, Second Quarter, 2007.
    This could mean today's writers need less time to develop. Or, as the authors note, perhaps some of the writers still living have not yet produced their best works. Therefore the years between first works and best works may rise over time. On the other hand, they also note that for 17% of the writers, their first work and their best work was the same.

    Hass and Weisberg collected information on the recordings of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs. Each composer’s career was marked by an initially low hit ratio, followed by a substantial increase in hit ratio 10 to 20 years into their careers. "Creative development in American popular songwriters: A test of equal-odds rule," Creativity Research Journal, 2009. 21.
    Also see: Development of Creative Expertise in Music: A Quantitative Analysis of the Songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.

    Hass, Weisberg, and Jimmy Choi studied three popular collaborative writing teams.
    Two of the three teams examined (the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart) exhibited increasing hit-ratios throughout the formative years of their careers. The Rodgers-Hammerstein team exhibited no such trend. However, when the careers of Rodgers and Hammerstein were analyzed separately, increasing trends were found for each member, and it was concluded that Rodgers and Hammerstein had developed separately. Thus, the data suggest that when the members of collaborative songwriting teams begin their careers together, the team develops creative expertise as a unit. However, if collaboration begins subsequent to individual development, further development may not be observed. "Quantitative Case-Studies in Musical Composition: The Development of Creativity in Popular-Songwriting Teams."
    Weisberg concluded that the 10-year rule was evident in the collaborative partnership of Lennon and McCartney, since the duo started writing songs in 1957 and began their most creative period around 1967. Creativity: Understanding Innovation in Problem Solving, Science, Invention, and the Arts, 2006.

    Charlie Parker has been cited as someone who drew creativity from a vast repertoire of jazz formulas. According to James Patrick
    Parker based his solos on the underlying chord structure, endlessly creating new melodies with no obvious resemblance to the originals. In doing so, Parker often used a process known to musicologists as centonization whereby new works are created out of short, preexisting melodic formulas. “Charlie Parker,” The Oxford Companion to Jazz, 2000.
    Keep in mind that these examples are based on looking backward. We have the benefit of determining in hindsight that these were historically creative people and then to establish measurement standards after the fact. Lore Sjöberg makes a good point that the farther away we are from creativity, and the less we have to compare it to, the more it looks like art.
    Let’s examine:

    0 to 25 years old: Almost nothing is true art. Certainly nothing common or popular. Art is created by a few geniuses denied popular acclaim by their own uncompromising vision.

    25 to 100 years old: Not everything is art, but a lot is, even some of the popular stuff. At the time, people thought they were just enjoying something fun and entertaining, but actually they were in the presence of true brilliance.

    100 to 2,000 years old: Any creative work made by anyone is worth investigation, preservation and in-depth academic criticism. Every painting, poem and rustic folk song is indicative of the ineffable zeitgeist of the cultural disposition. People were surrounded by art all the time and didn’t even realize it.

    2,000 to 30,000 years old: Everything is art. Not just words and pictures, but pottery and baskets and huts. Even if they just wanted to make something to boil the tannins out of their acorns, these artists were actually participating in an age-old ritual where the creative soul and utilitarian necessity united into a singular expression of their culture’s unique viewpoint. And if they scratched a little picture into the rock that meant “stand here to watch the women bathe without them seeing you,” they were the Michelangelo of their time. "Alt Text: Are Videogames Art? Time Will Tell,", 4/23/10.
    Okay, now to the realities. Yes, I think practice pays off. Musicians who play more and songwriters who write more tend to get better over time. But if it is true that musicians/artists/bands don't begin to hit their peaks until after ten years of "deliberate practice," then we've got to look at where popular music is headed:

    1. Today there are fewer opportunities for pure songwriters, like Berlin and Porter, who might take decades to hit their peaks. While people can spend years writing new songs, if no one is recording them, then today's songwriters, unlike those in the past, won't have anything prove they are "experts.”

    Here's a list of some of the most prolific/successful from the relatively recent past. One of them is Diane Warren, who has written hits for Elton John, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Roy Orbison, Patti LaBelle, Cher, 'N Sync, Gloria Estefan, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Reba McEntire, Whitney Houston, Enrique Iglesias, Aerosmith, Ricky Martin, Faith Hill, Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige, and LeAnn Rimes. She's written over 100 songs that have charted on Billboard. Here are some of the most recognizable.

    While some think of her as having perfected the "generic power ballad" (not necessarily a desirable distinction), she has learned her craft well enough to have become very successful.
    I’ve been doing this since I was 14 years old. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and that theory of having 10,000 hours of experience in something. I’m like the poster girl for that — someone getting good at their craft by putting all those hours in. It took me a long time to make a living doing this. "Diane Warren: One-Woman Hit Factory," Keyboard, April 2010.
    While Warren isn't comparable to Porter, Berlin, and Gershwin, the bar has gotten even lower now. Here are writers who are being called today's "superstars."
  • Thaddis "Kuk" Harrell, co-author of recent smashes "Umbrella" and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)"
  • Jane't Sewell-Ulepic, a co-writer behind the recent smash, "Empire State of Mind"
  • Ashley Gorley, the Nashville-based creator behind "You're Gonna Miss This"
  • "The Secret Lives of Superstar Songwriters," Digital Music News, 4/23/10.
    2. With the emphasis on youth, music careers tend to be short. Unless artists/musicians start their training at age 10 so they can peak at age 20, they probably aren't going to have the opportunity to display whatever expertise they accumulate as adults.

    3. Given the reduced number of music sales in today's market, if that is the criterion of success, then no one today is likely to reach anything comparable to what was achieved by popular musicians/artists of the past. So how will we decide who are today's most creative artists? What measures will we use?

    4. If today's artists are going to make most of their money on tour, then when will they also have time to devote to the "deliberate practice" that is required to get them to the top of their games and keep them there? When will they have time to practice and experiment if they are touring perhaps 300 days a year?

    5. Would we get better, more creative songwriters if we encourage them to listen to more genres, or are some of them right to focus very narrowly on how to write the next hit? Here's what Diane Warren says:
    So a great song should transcend the genre, but it also should transcend the time period in which it was written.
    ... I had a lot of influences growing up. I had my Mom and Dad playing show tunes in the house, and my sister playing Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Beatles. And then there was top-40 radio, which truly was a mix of everything. And what all those songs had in common was that they were all hits. So I got fed a diet of really great stuff. The level of writing when I grew up — if you look at the top ten in 1967, just randomly — most of those songs are still around today. Whether it’s the Beatles, or Motown, or Burt Bacharach, just in terms of craft, that was the heyday. I was lucky enough to grow up during that time. "Diane Warren: One-Woman Hit Factory," Keyboard, April 2010.
    For her background, she cites diversity in pop music. Is that how pop writers should be groomed? Or should future writers look beyond that to include classical, jazz, and world music?

    6. Can we create music databases that allow musicians to draw upon more pieces of music? If we want more innovative songs created in a shorter number of years, should we provide more tech tools so that aspiring songwriters and musicians don't have to learn it all themselves? Can technology eliminate the need for years of training?

    Now, after all of the above research, my views haven't really changed.

    While I agree that practice is important and I absolutely believe we should keep learning until we die, I'm not sure it's always possible to foresee in advance the end goal or how to get there. If you haven't put in the time, you may find ways to compensate for what you haven't already learned (e.g., put together a team to help you, find the necessary tools). Or maybe you'll find a completely new route to get where you want to go or need to be.

    The 10,000 hour (or 10-year) rule is an interesting concept, but may encourage people to invest far more time in activities that turn out not to be significant to them. Sometimes those random unplanned occurrences become the more life-defining.

    On the other hand, if your passions lead you to invest 10,000 hours into something anyway, you've got your training. Maybe you can do something with it.

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 5/1/10

    Since songwriters have been cited as an example of the 10,000 hours/10-year rule, I thought this was a relevant addition to the discussion:
    Mr. Sondheim may be the last great songwriter, in a lineage that runs from Jerome Kern through the Gershwins to Leonard Bernstein, who pushed the Broadway musical from a brash, vaudevillian entertainment into a loftier realm. But of all of them, Mr. Sondheim went the furthest in deconstructing and reinventing a populist art form as a highbrow version of itself.

    Mr. Sondheim’s music examines the entire pre-1960s tradition, from Gilbert and Sullivan and Viennese operetta, through the Gershwins’ satires, Cole Porter’s burlesque musicals and beyond. The pastiche songs of “Follies,” particularly, recycle the styles of classic show tunes, matching or outdoing their antecedents in quality while subverting their escapism. "The Unmistakable Sensibility of Sondheim," New York Times, 5/1/10.
    UPDATE, 5/5/10
    Here's an interview with an interesting fellow whose career path seems to have grown out of thin air, but he appears to be very good at what he does, which is to come up with fanciful or futurist vehicles and work place solutions. He became a senior analyst in the future trends department at Honda Research & Development, North America.
    [Steven] Johnson, whose only art training consisted of a few classes at Yale in the 1950s, claims to have discovered his “ability” only after Roger Olmsted, editor of the Sierra Club Bulletin, asked him, in 1974, to invent recreational vehicles (RVs) that by design would satirize those that were tearing up the nation’s delicate ecosystems. Olmsted asked for 16; Johnson gave him more than 100. Those RV sketches, Johnson recalls, allowed him to discover that, “The method of turning and churning and imagining new shapes and humorous contexts for those shapes — and never-before-considered combinations of those shapes — is akin to a pleasurable activity and can go on for hours. I stop only because I tire of drawing up so many ideas — my hand becomes fatigued — and not because I run out of ideas!” "Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas," design mind, Issue 12.
    UPDATE 6/10/10
    This article discusses career paths of writers.
    ... an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking,” Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year. "How Old Can a ‘Young Writer’ Be?" New York Times, 6/9/10.
    UPDATE 11/12/10
    This article suggests that the very skills that make you an expert may also lock you into a certain type of thinking. The better your brain becomes at perceiving patterns within your field of expertise, the more your brain is taken over by that expertise and the less able you are to process new information. "The Cognitive Cost Of Expertise."


    1. Interesting, as always, and much to take in.

      I really couldn't list everything that came to my mind as I read this without generating a post of similar volume, so I'll just stick to what I consider most pertinent:

      1. The field tends to determine the amount of time needed to peak creatively. Novelists are a classic example, since creating a lasting work of this kind requires not only the mastery of pencraft, but years of mature reflection on the surrounding world. The long-form writer needs to put depth in the work, that can only come from a depth of personal experience. Poetry, on the other hand, tends to capture the moment and thus does not require such foundations - if anything, the young can be better equipped to spontaneously express their feeling, just as truth comes from the mouths of babes.

      2. The historical perspective can be viewed twofold:

      a. When have a comprehensive historical context, we tend to remember - and value - the best work of the time. That's what "lasting art" means. Just look up the charts from ten or twenty years back (at a time when you were already aware of the music) and see how many of the songs you remember. Most of the popular works at any time will not endure.

      b. As we go deeper into the past, we lack such context and the scarce examples of creativity that have survived for so long, tend to be nobilitateD en masse. We are no longer equipped to distinguish between "artists". Also keep in mind the emotional colour lent by their discovery.

      3. If we consider originality - in the sense of creating something new - as vital to an important work, we should infer that creativity requires a knowledge of what has come before - if only to know what we are running away from. Also, "there is nothing new, save that which has been forgotten" cuts both ways. It can be used to unearth forgotten material as a basis for new creativity, or lead to reinventing the wheel.

      4. When considering the influence of a creator, I find an evolutionary approach can be helpful. To whit: a creator who influences a new generation of creators can be viewed as a breeder in the biological sense. As those who have been influenced go on to influence further generations, we begin to see something like an evolutionary lineage, subject to "natural selection". Which linages are "successful", in the sense of lasting for generations, can only be seen with the passage of time. I'd argue that with contemporary popular music, we do not have sufficient perspective to tell who the true "greats" are/were (although I think we can identify some strong contenders).

      I could go on with these, but I'll try to end with a more general conclusion.

      Ultimately, I don't think creativity can be subject to bean-counting analysis. The choice to devote oneself to creative work is something that comes from a deep personal need and wondering "will it be worth the effort" rarely enters into the calculation. The value of one's output also tends to emerge with time.

      It certainly pays to start early and it pays even more to continue honing one's craft and knowledge of one's chosen and related fields. The 10,000 hours rule may be a useful guideline, but at the end our work will only be tested by public reception.

      As for market considerations - in terms of audience awareness and reception - today we have much more options for maintaining a record of our creativity, both in terms of media and collective memory (since it is easier than ever to reach large audiences). It is at least conceivable that today's "gene-pool" of creative works will be much wider than in previous centuries. Post-humous recognition may be little consolation to the starving artist, but extracting the most value for one's creativity here and now is a subject for a completely different discussion.

    2. Thanks for the comment. I am hoping people will give some thought to the 10,000 hour concept rather than just accept it as fact. The latest book, by David Shenk, has triggered a new round of articles about it. But if you look at what the research was measuring, you see that the definition of "expertise" was very controlled. Not everything easily fits into that definition.

      I think you have illustrated that a creative person is likely to be naturally curious and will spend time learning what has gone before, so often the hours will invested, though I'm not sure it is always done in as linear fashion as the simple version of 10,000 hours suggests.

    3. I suspect you're not entirely sold on the notion of defining creative endeavor solely on the basis of "hits" in the commodities marketplace nor "masterpieces" as defined by experts.
      That suspicion is one of many reasons I'll continue reading this remarkably insightful and informative blog, with growing gratitude.

    4. It's an interesting point that success and skill are not necessarily linked. I think that is right.

      Beyond basic spreadsheet skills are million dollar a year bankers actually more skilled in a quantifiable way than, say, physicists? I think not.

      Similarly, politicians are good at running for election, not governing. Actors may have some quality that makes them appear good on camera, but this says nothing else.

      It's a classic case of confusing seeming causes and effects.

      The writer example above is a bit of a shock. It starts one way with peak success later but then is found to be that writers do their best work relatively young? Hm!

      Twists and turns. It's like researching psychic phenomena - the closer you get the more it recedes.

    5. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think there is the presumption that the harder I work and the more hours I put in, the result will be some sort of measurable success. But not all fields have "experts" and not in all fields do the most practiced make the most money or become the most famous. In some cases, people have picked out examples of success and then gone back to look for indication that they followed the 10,000 hour rule. There's been less work in finding "failures" to see if they also followed the 10,000 hour rule.

      And if you look at the end result first (the "successes"), then you end up looking back and trying to identify which 10,000 hours they might have put in. For example, did the reality TV star put in 10,000 hours collecting skills to look good in front of a camera? Was there any sort of deliberate practice in preparation for this "career" or was it just a random collection of life skills?

    6. Or was it just some kind of approach to random events? One of the Canadian actors on the show "Glee" was roofing in Canada when he heard about the audition and drove down to LA. Not many people would do that.

      It's worth remembering also that while most people wouldn't do that quite a few do and their entertainment careers go nowhere.

      Or lucky connections? I recall a few things about actors. One fact is that many are related to bigshots in the biz, like Nicolas Cage or Miley Cyrus. Keanu Reeves had a family friend who was a producer in New York, a rare contact for a Canadian boy who was going into hockey.

      What the marketing driven authors like Gladwell sell is hope and a belief that fits into our current political narrative about supposed equality (plus moral virtue for those who supposedly "work hard" enough to get where they are). I can see both why that sells and also why it is wrong.

      In your examination do you have any thoughts about a better approach? It seems to me you've got a clearer picture of the reality. Any prospective solutions?

    7. I think it is fine to follow your passion. And I think it is fine to have goals. But I think everyone needs a plan A, a plan B, and a plan C. I started writing about sports careers when I watched those skaters spend a lot of money and about 12 years of their lives training. The successful ones were approached by agents and didn't know how to respond. The "unsuccessful" ones didn't reach their goal (to make it to the Olympics), but that didn't mean they had wasted their lives. They just needed to figure out how to turn what they learned into something useful other than just winning a medal.

      The plan A was getting to the Olympics.
      Plan B is if you fell short. So what do you do next?
      Plan C is if disaster hits you (like being hit by a truck) and you have to completely reinvent your life.

      You can hope for plan A, but you need to at least realize that plan B or C can happen too. Training hard isn't enough to control your outcome.

      What used to trouble me the most were families that put themselves into financial jeopardy to pay for skating lessons that weren't likely to result in the goal that they had hoped for. That's why the 10,000 hours concept bothers me a bit. I know people who will be so obsessed with training that they will do that to the exclusion of everything else, and they will not make rational decisions along the way. Telling people that they will be experts if they train hard enough can be very misleading.

      I think for the most part we are all better served by getting a broad education and learning a variety of skills. Perhaps by college we can begin to specialize a bit, but even then, with the world changing so much, we'll probably have to switch careers several times over our lifetimes. Flexibility seems more important in today's world than expertise.

    8. Thanks, Suzanne. Good suggestions!

    9. Another factor that needs to be emphasized with sports is genetics. I would see girls who started skating at three or six and progressing well and then when they hit puberty, their bodies didn't cooperate with them. Some of them went on drastic diets, which wasn't good. In some countries they look at the parents and make the decision years in advance whether a young child will grow into the right body for a sport, but we tend not to do that. Training alone isn't always sufficient to put you at the top of your sport.

      Similarly, if you need good vision to succeed in a particular career and you don't have it, you can train all you want, but you don't have all the pieces necessary for success.

      So perhaps we can say, "All things being equal, the person who trains the most and trains the best will do better than those who don't." But rarely are all things equal.

    10. Things not in reality being equal is the crux of the whole matter, isn't it?

      The current Western cultural belief, the one that sells books and guides government policy, is that everyone is equal and the only variable is hard work. This worldview creates way more problems than it solves.

      I liked your observation on how sometimes parents are observed for future prospects of their children. Anything of that sort as long as the mode of assessment is reasonably accurate would be a big step in the right direction.

      Also, some kind of training for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities would likely be helpful. School and planning can only take one so far. Sometimes things just pop up in life and if a person is so set on their 5 year plan then they can miss it altogether.


    Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.