The Margin of 10000 Hours

I remember sewing before the internet.  For me, and for most of the folks I knew who were sewing, it was primarily about achieving a goal–usually a finished garment.  Sewing wasn’t, for us in the pre-blog, pre-Pinstagram age, about ALL THE PROJECTS WE HAVEN’T DONE YET.  But doesn’t it seem as though sometimes, now, it IS about just that?  All the millions of projects we haven’t done yet?  And somehow, that bleeds over into me feeling as though I should know more, more, more and that I need to be better, better, better.  As if my skill at the machine will be a reflection of my value as a person, and that somehow the photos I post or the number of tutorials I do will make me feel accomplished and successful.

This is not a rant, honest.  Because even in those pre-internet, pre-blog days, I sure as shootin’ would hoard fabric and stash patterns, and more than once was known to get them out of the closet and spread them across the floor and make Big Plans for ALL THE SEWING I was planning to get done.  (Just like I do now, as it happens.)  And I am very content to both write and read tutorials, and am inspired and energized by what the online community has to offer–some of my closest, most sympatico friends are those whom I know from the Interwebs, and I am proud and grateful to know them.  What I’m getting at, I think, is the sense of time pressure that the internet presents, that urgency to have achieved…whatever the goal is…RIGHT NOW.  And I think it’s both misleading and not a whole lot of fun.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book a few years ago called Outliers.  It’s a book about success, and while I was fascinated by the statistics and his interpretations, what stuck with me is a phrase he repeats throughout the text: he talks about “The 10,000 Rule” as he writes, referring to his belief that to become expert at something, one must practice a particular skill for around 10,000 hours before becoming truly competent to the point of gifted innovation.  He uses The Beatles as an example, explaining how while they were an obscure little band from an obscure little English town, they played in Germany to get some exposure, sometimes eight hours a night for five nights a week, to an audience who largely weren’t listening.  And according to Gladwell, it was these hours that MADE them The Beatles, and not just another band from Britain during the British Invasion.  It was those 10,000 hours where no one cared how good they were or what style they played or what song it was, even.  They could make all the mistakes they wanted–and learn from the reaction of the crowd and from their own ideas and fooling around.  They just PLAYED, their instruments and, in the truest sense, like children.  Remember when it was all just for PLAY?

What a luxury, to have those 10,000 hours to practice and make mistakes and learn and grow and evolve and innovate!  And to a certain degree, the internet makes that difficult.  In some ways, of course, having the World Wide Web is wildly inspiring and gives us all ideas we might never have had otherwise.  It offers us connections and community and interaction, ways to bounce ideas around and share our knowledge.  I, for one, am unendingly grateful for the freedom and success the internet has offered me, which I might not have found through any other medium.  I am not, by any means, pooping on the internet.  What I do feel, quite strongly now and again, is that the SPEED of the internet can work both for us and against us.  And for those of us who sew, it does create a sense that we must learn NOW, NOW, NOW.  All those inspiring posts, if seen through the wrong lens, can feel less like inspiration and more like condemnation because we weren’t as clever or as original or as passionate or as well-photographed.  (I feel very sure I am not the only one who has felt this way.)

Which makes me think of the 10,000 hours.  What luxury, to have that time to grow and screw up.  That’s right: to screw up.  I know, I know that to some of you, the idea of SEWING FOR 10,000 HOURS seems like a death sentence–I am a big fan of getting to the meat without flibberty-gibbeting around first.  But don’t you see??  That’s the message we’re losing!  What if the 10,000 hours IS the meat??  And we’re missing it.  Maybe it’s the journey, and not the destination.

I’m not in sewing because I want to be an expert.  That isn’t my goal.  That isn’t my Point B, to be an expert, no matter that my LinkedIn profile says “Aspiring Sewing Guru” (it was kind of a joke).  I’m in sewing because I love the endless, endless challenge of it.  I love that there is an unlimited vastness of variation.  It’s the same sensation I get when I walk into a library: I am overwhelmed with excitement and can’t wait to read ALL THE BOOKS.  When I taught school, though, I took a class to the library once, and one of my less-naturally-academically-talented students said, quietly, just to me, “Man, it’s like the books are reminding me that I’ll never be able to read them all.  Makes me not even want to start.”  What a huge moment to stand in someone else’s shoes that was–what a very different picture of the world and of possibility.

I see the 10,000 hours not as a burden, not as a reminder that I’ll never be an expert, but rather as an OPPORTUNITY.  What luxury! To have 10,000 hours where I can make absolute garbage and it WON’T MATTER.  You know why?  Because I won’t BE an expert yet.  How great is that?  We don’t give ourselves much margin in this internet age.  We, the first world, have become so accustomed to being great at things right out of the gate that we don’t cut ourselves much slack, or give ourselves much rope.  But all great explorers took along a lot of rope.  You never know when you might discover a cliff that needs to be scaled, or a fabulous mountain to climb.

At the end of my life, both my actual life and my sewing journey, I want to leave a legacy.  I want to have worked to learn something new and share it with others.  I don’t think I will learn that new something if I expect to be an expert TODAY.  I need that 10,000 hours of practicing, of making mistakes, of being inspired, of being dissatisfied, of being frustrated, of being overwhelmingly proud, of being upset, of being excited, of learning and discovering and exploring senseless ideas just to see where that path leads–even if it’s to nowhere and I have to start all over.  Margin is glorious, because it gives us room to invent new things, and room to make mistakes.

I don’t know how many hours I have under my belt at this point.  Not 10,000.  No matter where I am or where you are, though, I want my outlook to be about discovery and innovation.  Even if that outlook leads me down the wrong path to start with.  Even if sometimes that innovation means putting a donkey head on a backpack and standing back and the only word is, “Ew.”

16 Comments on “The Margin of 10000 Hours

  1. Very thought-provoking. I too feel the pressure of not being as successful as others… Sometimes put pressure on myself because I want to see a project done… Then a zipper breaks on a nearly finished skirt… And everything is on hold till you find another one;)

    • I know it! And maybe that’s part of having margin, too: on the projects where I’m not as worried about building a tutorial or blogging it or teaching it, if I make a mistake it’s not that big a deal. I don’t feel frustrated or overwhelmed–I just set it aside and come back later. Or I work on something funner! I’d love for us ALL to have more wiggle-room in our sewing. Wouldn’t that be lovely? :)

  2. Thanks for the great food for thought. Also, I, for one, am glad you didn’t poop on the Internet. That will be next, you know. :)

    • Ha! I totally had to read this four times before I understood where the emphasis should go. Hee! Luckily, I have no plans for a reality show, so NO internet pooping for me! Whew! :)

  3. Just what I needed to read today, right now, after I just finished posting about my Works (not) in Progress this week. Thank you for reminding me that it’s not about what I have accomplished, but that I remember to embrace the DOING it.

    • It’s so funny, because when I taught school, I was all about process over product–for the kids. But I never saw how it applied to me. Maybe because I was always in a time crunch and behind the 8-ball, and so I didn’t have margin then, either. Funny how the bad habits in one part of our lives bleed over into others, and now I find myself “discovering” the same thing about my sewing! I am learning to embrace the 10,000 and get excited about the path ahead of me, rather than counting the miles behind me. What a relief, right? :)

  4. I’m glad to be in the midst of my 10,000 hours, and wonder frequently what it will look like on the other side. I start getting antsy about not knowing “my style” and then remember I’m not there yet. I’d love to blog the process instead of the knowledge, but I don’t have time to take my 10,000 hours and photograph it and blog it too! Instagram helps make friends who are in the middle of it, though.

    • Agreed! I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m not excited about the end result–I totally am, but want to be very deliberate and intentional about watching the journey and enjoying the time and mistakes. If your kids make a big mess in the kitchen when they “help” you make cookies, it’s better for all of you to remember the cookies and the memory than the mess, right? I have such a strong sense right now that I want to build that whole concept and truth into ALL parts of my life–including my sewing. Glad I’m not the only one–we can start a movement!

  5. Ah, Deborah, this is really good stuff. I’m totally that person that doesn’t give myself 10,000 hours, but wants/expects/plans to be good at it right off the bat. In some ways, jumping in with 2 feet and running feels so good. In other ways, it would be nice to sew for “no reason” with “no pressure”. Wait, I don’t think that’s true or possible. I do love sewing for a reason, but perhaps sewing in a time warp where things could move fast or slow – that would be my version of 10,000 hours.

    • Yeah, I’m that girl, too, in that I love to jump in and have a project go smoothly the first time, and just run with it without having to go back and re-think and tweak. I would love, love, love to have the time and margin, though, that I can indulge those “bigger” ideas and pursue them in a more iterative, cyclical way–something tells me that’s where the deeper excitement lies. I hope, anyway–I haven’t gotten there yet! :)

  6. this is my absolute favorite part of what you said:

    I’m in sewing because I love the endless, endless challenge of it. I love that there is an unlimited vastness of variation. It’s the same sensation I get when I walk into a library: I am overwhelmed with excitement and can’t wait to read ALL THE BOOKS.

    YES, YES!!! that sensation of possibility, of learning, of growth, of time standing still. i feel that way with both books and sewing. so well said. i’ve come across the 10,000 idea before… thinking about it again. thank you.

  7. I started blogging my sewing not because I thought the internet would be so fascinated with my skills and creations, but because I’ve had a blog since 2001 (gosh I feel old), and it’s been part of my routine to write about my life. So I have posts about the things that excite and inspire *me* including the totally not impressive first bobbin winding, first stitches on a sewing machine, and an assortment of your standard beginner project pillows and tote bags.
    It’s not about expecting to be an expert right from the start, but about documenting the learning process because even though I might have 9,500 hours to go, it’s still fun to look back and see how much I’ve learned in the first 500 hours and makes me excited to think about what I’ll tackle in the next 500.

  8. Err, as an English woman and ex resident of Liverpool, I wouldn’t describe it as “an obscure little English town”! Liverpool is a city with a long history and for many years was at the heart of the British Empire as it was the main port for ships taking and bringing goods around the globe. These days it is not as large or wealthy as Manchester or London but the docks there still move more freight than any other port in the country, albeit using more machinery than manpower. A little bit of social, industrial and political history thre for you! There is much more to Liverpool than the Beatles!

  9. What if the 10,000 hours IS the meat? That’s absolutely it for me. Who cares how good I get, where I’m going, if I achieve expert status? It’s the getting there, wherever the hell there may be, that is the truest and deepest pleasure and meaning. Sew on, sister, and thanks for taking us all with you.

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