10,000 hours

June 24, 2010

A few years ago Malcom Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers in which he took up the question of how people become good at what they do. In so doing he looked at a number of examples, many of them famous — the Bill Gateses of the world, etc. — but the underlying question was meant in a broad sense. His ultimate argument was provocative: to become an expert at something, Gladwell says, you really need to put in about 10,000 hours of devoted, quality work.

I bring it up because recently Todd Larson of Whitefish Press asked this question in relation to rodbuilding, and whether Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is applicable. The question intrigued me because when we first went live with this site and were putting together our FAQ page I made a half-joking elusion to the “Gladwell rule” by doing back-of-the-napkin calculations to figure out how long I’d been building rods (by the way if you want to make yourself feel old, start calculating the things you do in hours — scary stuff!). In my case I figured that 35 years of rodbuilding times 48-ish weeks a year, times 45 hours a week rounded out to about 75,000 hours of rodbuilding. Yikes.

Todd’s question was an open-ended one, but after thinking it over I find myself strongly inclined to agree with the argument, albeit with a few caveats. I might be biased when it comes to rodbuilding but my guess is that it takes at least that long and probably a good bit more than that.

Let me explain. First it takes you years to figure out the basics, which is by no means a small task. Rodbuilding is a precise craft, and you have to be fanatical about getting things right. If you are off by too many thousandths with your ferrules, it’s back to square one. If there’s a glue seam in the blank that you just made, into the scrap pile it goes. If there are bubbles or dust in your varnish, then you take it down and redip it until it’s right. When you sit down and think of all the steps involved in building rods there are very few that you can do “good enough” and end up with something that’s good quality. Heck, often you won’t even end up with something that’s usable. Learning how to do all of those steps so that you don’t have to go back and redo them again adds up to a lot of time. This too, says nothing about the issue of consistency — a rodmaker can get lucky here and there with a rod but to be able to turn out good quality rods with regularity requires yet more time and skill. And of course all of this is assuming that you’re learning the basics, and not doing more sophisticated, specialized stuff like fancy ferrules or reel seats or designing tapers from the ground up. You get my point.

Needless to say I’m always a little surprised to hear people say that it only takes a couple of dozen rods to really learn the craft and I really don’t mean that to seem as though it’s coming down from on high. If I had to build a cabinet, or learn to do impressionist painting really well, I don’t know how many times I’d have to do it before I’d come up with something that really passes muster. I do know it would be a lot. I have friends that do both and I know that they’ve really put their time in too.

On to the caveats.

First, the quality of those hours count a whole lot. Many people have been at this a long time but I don’t think that necessarily makes them good rodmakers — I mean if you aren’t disciplined, aren’t ruthlessly attentive to your mistakes, and aren’t constantly trying to improve your work then you could easily spend those 10,000 hours frivolously without much to show for it. So just clocking hours isn’t enough. They have to be good hours.

The second part that I would add here is that mentors and collaboration are tremendously important. It’s theoretically possible to build great rods if you live on top of a mountain like a monk and just build rods night and day and are shut off from the outside world. But I don’t think that you’ll learn as much or learn it as quickly as you will being part of a likeminded community of people who are striving for the same goals. When you are starting out especially, it’s terribly important to find yourself a good mentor, and I don’t really know of any rodmakers who learned the craft any other way. In fact if there’s one piece of advice to give to young rodmakers I’d say to pick your mentors carefully. It’s going to have a huge influence on how much you learn and how quickly.

Finally, I’d argue that there’s also a certain creative element in building rods which doesn’t really come out until you’ve mastered the basic skills — the technical proficiency — of making rods well. I don’t want to get all mystical about the rodbuilding process because that’s already been done ten times over, but I do think that there is a certain something that you can see in people’s workmanship when they’ve sort of found a way to take things to the next level, where the craftsmanship blurs with art to produce something truly amazing. It’s an awfully hard thing to describe but I sort of know it when I see it, and I bet if you asked other craftsman or artists about this you’d get a similar sort of answer regardless of the medium they work in. Good rodmakers seem to have this ability and I guess it’s not a coincidence that many rodmakers tend to kick around with other artistic types.

That’s my take anyway. I’m sure others have thoughts about this too, but I just don’t see anyway around putting in some serious time in order to do this craft well. 10,000 hours might be a bit of an arbitrary number but I think that the spirit of the argument is spot on. Lots of other factors count of course, but I think it’s hard to build rods well without this sort of baseline, approximate though it might be.


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