what the 10,000 hours rule really means: taking lessons in stand up comedy from a nerdy Swedish guy instead of Malcolm Gladwell

My roommate Matt, like me, is a stand up comic. So, when one of us decides to take a night off, the other always tries to inspire some action: “Why don’t we go out and do some open mics?! You need to write more!” Matt always boils it down to: “You’ve gotta get your 10,000 hours, man!” I’ve probably heard Matt say that phrase 10,000 times. He’s really good at it. 

I was listening to a rebroadcast of a Freakonomics Radio episode called “How To Be Great At Just About Anything,” when the guy who came up with the 10,000 hour rule started explaining what it’s all about. And it got me thinking. What does 10,000 hours really mean? In the stand up community, the idea of “10,000 hours” is thrown around like crazy, but does anybody ACTUALLY know what it means? Yeah, 10,000 hours is a number.. .but do you magically become Louis C.K. after you’ve been on stage for that much time? Does it only matter how much time you’re on stage, or does writing count, too? Are you meant to keep track of how many hours you’re doing? Or is it just a big number to use for inspiration? Is it even physically possible?

When we boil it all down, “10,000 hours” really amounts to a buzz word that’s lost a lot of it’s meaning. So this is an attempt to get some real, concrete answers about what it means to get your 10,000 hours in comedy. Starting here:

You ask anybody who came up with the 10,000 hours rule and they’ll say “Malcolm Gladwell.” But they’re dead wrong. Which is why I’d rather take a lesson in stand up comedy from a nerdy Swedish guy named Anders Ericsson. Wait.. .who?

This Facebook status was borrowed from Eagle Witt, a NYC comedian (@EagleWitt)

The 10,000 hour rule IS DEFINITELY STILL A RULE when it comes to comedy

Harrison Greenbaum is NYC-based Harvard-educated Friars Club-member stand up comic who’s performed on Last Comic Standing. Greenbaum is a clever guy.

Back in 2010, Greenbaum wrote this super cool blog post about how to get your 10,000 hours in stand up comedy. And, if you read it, you get a sense of exactly what it takes to get those hours. Basically, he shows a few critical things:

  1. You can’t get to your 10,000 hours just by doing stand up
  2. If you do 2-2.5 hours of stand up/writing per day, you can get to your target 10,000 hours in 11-15 years
  3. If you follow the career trajectories of star comics such as Carlin, Pryor, Martin, and Rock, every single one of them takes about 11-14 years to “become an expert”

Greenbaum makes a couple of great points that a lot of casual “10,000 hours” fans might not consider. For example, it seems every other week you find a thread on Reddit about how getting your 10,000 hours is impossible in comedy because, “If you do the math, it will take 70 million years, so what’s the point?” The argument tends to go, “No one can possibly assemble that much stage time, so I guess no one is an expert!” 

The major flaw in this reasoning, which Greenbaum alludes to, is that a lot of other things go into stand up comedy besides just standing on stage and telling jokes. In fact, if that’s all you did, you could never rewrite any of your material! (Or at least, your rewrites would be improvised and not nearly as good). In other words, writing is a giant component of stand up comedy that is being totally ignored in these scenarios. Becoming a better stand up comic is not just about improving your stage presence; it’s also about spending years learning how to write and re-write jokes so your material gradually becomes better and better.

Distilling the 10,000 hours rule down to only stage time would be like calling Usain Bolt an amateur sprinter because he hasn’t spent 10,000 hours of his life in a full sprint. The extreme counterexample would be the statement, “It’s impossible for anyone to become an expert sprinting a 100-meter, because each sprint is 12 seconds long. You’d have to do 600 100-meter sprints every single day for 14 years to be considered an expert.” Ridiculous! There’s a lot more that goes into becoming a well-rounded sprinter than just sprinting. Usain Bolt does weight training, resistance training, long-distance running, and probably a million other things I’m too stupid to know about that all help give him an edge in a 100-meter sprint.

Similarly, you can and should do a ton of other things to help you become an overall better stand up comic. Writing is just one of those things. Improv, sketch writing, podcasting, hosting/crowd work, and, dare I say, writing an article about the true meaning of the 10,000 hour rule in comedy all help you become a better comedian and go towards your tally. Even just hanging out with other comics helps you become a well-rounded stand up comic.

So yeah, if you think of it that way – the 10,000 hours goal is a lot easier to achieve than some comics think. But, whoa there! Before you start counting every single little thing you do that’s barely tangentially kind of related to comedy as part of your 10,000 hours, Anders Ericsson might have something to say about that.

Just to make a side-point here: Greenbaum also does a cool thing by showing you evidence that his math has some accuracy to it. Of course, merely listing out the names of Carlin, Pryor, Martin, and Rock doesn’t prove anything in itself. Yet, usually, seasoned professional comics say it really takes you 10-15 years to know what you’re doing. And that’s reflected in the careers of countless comedians. It takes someone really special to slingshot up the comedy landscape and achieve the level of those comics in less than 15 years. Evidence of the 10,000 hours is definitely out there to see.

This Facebook status was borrowed from NYC comedian Pedro Salinas (@salinas_pedro)

There’s more out there than Malcolm Gladwell

Everything that Greenbaum shared in his analysis for the 10,000 hours rule in comedy was spot on. It’s what he didn’t say that’s really the kicker.

In the first few paragraphs, Greenbaum says:

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and thought the following was interesting, especially as it pertains to stand-up comedy:

“‘The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,’ writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin.. .’It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

A page later, Gladwell remakes this point:

“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

Before I want to say anything else, I will say this: I love what Malcolm Gladwell does and I’ve read nearly all his books. He has a fantastic ability to distill really complex and (arguably) outwardly boring ideas down in a way that captivates millions of readers. If only I could do that.. .

All that being said, Malcolm Gladwell is just one person.

And that’s the problem. Gladwell is the guy who first popularized the idea of the 10,000 hours rule in his book Outliers. But, Malcolm Gladwell didn’t come up with the 10,000 hours rule. Anders Ericsson did.

So if you’ve been listening to Gladwell, you’ve been taking lessons from the wrong guy. Yes, Gladwell knows what he’s talking about, since he had to read a lot of research papers to compile his book, but it’s not quite the same as devoting your entire career to a discipline like the psychology of expertise. Which is what Anders Ericsson did.

Ericsson has been studying the field of psychology for over 35 years. He’s published over thirteen papers on the acquisition of expert performance in the past 10 years alone. He’s been co-editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance for the past 11 years. And he’s published three books on the domain of expertise – the most notable and recent of which being Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. With all due respect, Malcolm Gladwell is.. .a journalist. In other words, you could say that Anders Ericsson “has his 10,000 hours” in studying the psychology of expertise and Malcolm Gladwell does not. It’s not that Gladwell is wrong per se, it’s just that, like a game of telephone, every degree of separation we travel away from a primary source, the greater the risk of encountering an alternate agenda. And in this case, Gladwell leaves out something in his book that Ericsson believes is absolutely crucial.

This Facebook status was borrowed from NYC comedian Anders Lee (@Newb4lyfe)

Ericsson has found that, not only does the time doing a task matter, but what you’re doing and how you’re doing it are the most important parts of the 10,000 hours rule. Ericsson says there are actually different types of practice. And, often, people will end up doing the lazier version, because it feels like you’re working when, in actuality, it’s pretty easy stuff. On the other hand, true experts partake in “purposeful practice” and “deliberate practice,” which truly do help you improve in your field.

According to Ericsson, purposeful practice is “when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect. Purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you’re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you’re playing, there’s really no target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.” (Freakonomics)

In other words, purposeful practice is picking something to work on every single time you get on stage. If you’re not very good at voices, you write a joke where you have to do a southern accent. Or you decide that you’re going to stop moving your hands so much or grabbing the mic stand. Or you want to be more open and performative, so you change the levels of your voice and try new facial expressions. Or you want to try a different wording of one or two of your jokes. You’re not just getting up on stage and practicing the same jokes with the same writing and same delivery over and over again – you have a purpose. You’re picking something and you’re purposefully targeting it during every moment of your practice. That is purposeful practice and that’s what makes you better.

Another key type of practice that Ericsson writes about in his studies is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires a teacher who is not only an expert in the field, but also has experience helping individuals reach very high levels of performance. Like purposeful practice, deliberate practice also  involves very well-defined, specific goals that are meant to improve an aspect of the target performance. “It is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement.”

The key here is that we need feedback in order to learn what types of mistakes we are making so that we can adjust. We need a goal like, “I’m going to work on crowd work about people’s occupations.” And feedback like, “Wow, that lady did not like when I asked her if she was a prostitute” in order to get better. Without a clear goal and criteria for what makes effective crowd work, we have no feedback and way to learn and improve. We’re just getting up on stage and saying.. .whatever.

Ericsson also says that deliberate practice “takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities.” Basically, if you’re comfortable doing what you’re doing, then you should be doing something more. If you always hang out with the same comics, go to the same clubs, do the same material, you’re not getting better. You’re staying the same.

Because going out of your comfort zone requires an extraordinary amount of effort, it’s usually not that fun. No one likes bombing on stage, but you need to force yourself to bomb in order to get better. You need to try new things that won’t work so that you know what does. Ericsson brings the reasoning behind this assertion back to the body; if you’re doing the same things, your body gets used to what you’re doing and won’t change. It’s like running. If you run the same 2-mile route every day in the same amount of time, you’ll never be able to run a marathon. You need to force yourself out of breath. To shave seconds and minutes off your time. Try three, four, ten miles instead of two.

Deliberate practice relies on the idea that if you are making errors, you will invent solutions to these errors and you will fix them. If you’re not going out of your comfort zone and making new errors then you cannot improve. It’s like that old cliche.. .wait, it’s like every cliche ever: learn from your mistakes. But the first step is that you actually have to make the mistakes. You should never feel safe.

The logical extension of this can be seen in comedy everywhere. Some big-name comics get better and better year after year because they push themselves to try new things. Obvious examples to me are Louis C.K. and Mike Birbiglia, who force themselves to try new formats and methods of expressing their comedy. I don’t want to name names, but I’m sure we can all think of one or two examples of other massively successful comics who find their voice and their audience and stay there forever, because they don’t want to lose what they have. The truly innovative comedians keep pushing themselves to try new things and succeed in different ways; they make risks in order to learn from their mistakes and get even better.

This Facebook status was borrowed from NYC comedian Chelsea Hood (@chelseahood)

So.. .what does Ericsson think about Gladwell?

“Gladwell basically thought that was kind of an interesting magical number and suggested that the key here is to reach that 10,000 hours. I think he’s really done something very important, helping people see the necessity of this extended training period before you reach high levels of performance. But I think there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours. Just the amount of experience performing may in fact have very limited chances to improve your performance. The key seems to be that deliberate practice, where you’re actually working on improving your own performance — that is the key process, and that’s what you need to try to maximize.” – Anders Ericsson on Freakonomics Radio

But, Gladwell’s perspective is a little different.. .

“To me the point of 10,000 hours is: if it takes that long to be good, you can’t do it by yourself. If you have to play chess for 10 years in order to be a great chess player, then that means that you can’t have a job, or maybe if you have a job it can’t be a job that takes most of your time. It means you can’t come home, do the dishes, mow the lawn, take care of your kids. Someone has to do that stuff for you. That was my argument, that if there’s a kind of incredibly prolonged period that is necessary for the incubation of genius, high-performance, elite status of one sort of another, then that means there always has to be a group of people behind the elite performer making that kind of practice possible. And that’s what I wanted to say.” – Malcolm Gladwell on Freakonomics Radio

Ericsson’s main issue with Gladwell’s book is that it almost exclusively focuses on the time that goes into a skill rather than the deliberate practice that is spent on that skill. You meet people every day who are tallying up their hours and assume that merely accumulating hours will eventually make them an expert in their field. Ericsson says that Gladwell’s perspective is fundamentally incorrect and different from what his research shows: that you have to intentionally increase your performance and be guided by an expert so you can incrementally improve. Ericsson adds that Gladwell’s view isn’t just missing something, but it is also very misleading: “So that idea that people actually think that they’re going to get better when they’re not — that, I find, to be the most troubling.”

Gladwell is a creative person who focuses on a very different aspect of the 10,000 hours rule, but one which is still important: that we have to spend an incredible amount of time on a subject to really become a master of it. And with that commitment, there are a lot of unseen consequences and sacrifices that go along with it. I think this is the interpretation that comics cling to the most: you’re going to have to work extremely hard and make sacrifices to succeed. Greenbaum is dead-on in his analysis, but he’s missing one of the most important aspects of Ericsson’s research – that your practice has to be extremely deliberate. A few years back, Caleb Synan, an LA-based comedian*, wrote an article about the 10,000 hour rule that appeared on his blog and The Comic’s Comic. Synan completely nails the most important part of the rule:

“.. .Doing 500 shows a year won’t make you better just because 500 is a big number. If you go recite your bad 5 minutes 500 times in one year, it will be the same ole bad 5 minutes at the end of the year. I see people do this all the time. They don’t edit. They don’t adjust. They don’t grow.. .The 10,000 rule only applies if you worked hard for all 10,000 of those hours. Nobody’s following you around and adding up every second you’re doing comedy and then giving you a Conan spot* when it hits the magic number. Some people don’t seem to understand this.” – Caleb Synan

I think a lot more of us should be listening to Synan. Many of us comics are glossing over that second, equally as important component: it’s not only about working hard; it’s about working right. We might all think that we’re being a lot more deliberate than we really are. Of course, we want to believe that every set is purposeful and deliberate, but is it really? Are you making concrete goals for every second you’re on stage?

 

A summary:

Lessons from Gladwell

  • People underestimate the consequences of how much time it takes to become an expert at anything
  • Narrative function: in order to train enough to make these things happen you have to make sacrifices in other aspects of your life
  • The time ALONE is a huge crazy commitment, even without the idea of deliberate practice

Lessons from Ericsson

  • Focus on a specific goal every time you sit down to write or get on stage: purposeful practice, whenever you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the best
  • Get a mentor or someone who is more experienced than you who can help guide you
  • Get out of your comfort zone and continually try things that are new and difficult for you

 

“Ten thousand hours – I’m so damn close I can taste it

On some Malcolm Gladwell, David Bowie meets Kanye shit.” – Ten Thousand Hours, Macklemore

If you ask me, Macklemore definitely should’ve been singing about Anders Ericsson.. .

*Caleb Synan has also appeared on Last Comic Standing and, ironically, appeared on Conan two years after his article was published on The Comic’s Comic. He’s great and his article is great – check it out!


This post was written by Stu Melton, a NYC comedian and creator of ACN. You can find him on twitter @tellsjokes.

The featured image is original art from Chris Cheney, a NYC comedian and artist. If you want to see more of his art, you can follow him on Twitter or Instagram @notthatcheney. He also hosts the Power Hour Podcast.

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