This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 6, 2009 - 10,000 hours makes mastery

When I was young, and first taking piano lessons, Mozart really bothered me. I don't mean that his music bothered me. The music was charming and irresistible.

I was bothered by the fact of him. He was writing sonatinas practically as an infant. By the time he was a teenager, he could listen to long, complex symphonic performances just once, then go home and write down every note.

It wasn't fair.

Later, I used to think that the only rational explanation was reincarnation. You work on something for 7 lives, then you get born with all that practice encoded in your DNA. That made sense: as ye sow, so shall ye reap. It just takes time. Lifetimes.

Of course, we don't actually know that the world IS fair. Evidence argues against it. And the data for reincarnation is also a little murky.

But it turns out there's another explanation for Mozart. I read about it in Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers." In brief, the idea is this: practice anything for 10,000 hours, and you have a breakthrough. You achieve something that to the rest of us looks like magic or mastery.

Mozart's tyrant of a father had Mozart practicing almost from birth. And guess what? By the time he was the age I was when I started my tentative one note plunkings, Mozart the boy had put in his 10,000 hours.

Of course, you do have to have some talent. Time alone doesn't do it. But who is going to put in 10,000 hours doing something they don't have a knack for? The key to significant accomplishment is that combination: something you're good at, plus lots and lots of hours of preparation.

This sidesteps another question: was it worth it for Mozart? He gave us extraordinary music. But he died in poverty, and fairly young. Does the example of Mozart give parents the right to rob their children of their childhoods, as the Soviet Union once did in the case of promising gymnasts?

Of course, without that big push, maybe nobody today would remember Mozart. Is it better to have a peaceful life, or a life of remembered greatness ... and strife?

That, and you may quote me, is an excellent question.

With children, I'm inclined to cut them some slack, give them big, unstructured dollops of time running through the woods, cavorting in mountains, or frolicking in water.

With the library, I'm inclined to push for greatness.

As noted a few weeks ago, the Douglas County Libraries came into a new population ranking (250,000 up to 500,000) as the number one library in the country. (See "Hennen's American Public Library Ratings.") A few folks have asked me how we did that.

The answer is really pretty straightforward: we applied consistent effort in some consistent directions (quality service, advocacy for literacy, getting as many library materials in people's homes as possible) for many years. Eventually, we got good at all that.

When I was first starting out in libraries, I ran across several directors who were resume builders: popping in, launching hot new initiatives, then getting out before anyone really knew whether or not they had worked. But that's like trying to cross the ocean in a fancy high tech rowboat -- and changing the direction of the rowing at random.

So for people, here's this week's moral: start practicing. 10,000 hours is about 5 work years (40 hours a week). You can do it.

For institutions: the trick isn't innovation. It's consistent application of effort that leads to accomplishment.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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