Am I Old Enough?

I just finished an interesting book by Malcolm Gladwell that someone got me for my birthday, called Outliers. Now I’m not particularly interested in non-fiction, though I have sometimes chosen to read books on how to write, or on reincarnation and other topics that interest me.

But I got the book as a gift, found myself in the house for a week by myself (family on vacation without me woo hoo) and figured I should turn the TV off and read something.

This is the guy that popularized the 10,000 hours concept, that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert. He says he has found that if you don’t have that, you aren’t one of the best, and you are never one of the best without having that under your belt. He has found no exceptions to this rule (don’t quote me – I read the book through once – but I’m pretty sure that was what he said – more or less). The number seems a bit arbitrary to me, and is always based on estimates anyway, cause we ain’t born lawyers and accountants, tracking the time we spend on each client since we’re 10, or at whatever age we start practicing.

But the book was fascinating, and got me reconsidering my position on parents who hold their kids back so they’ll be the oldest in class instead of the youngest. I was one of the youngest and I liked it. I liked going to college when I was still 17. I liked that I didn’t have to stay in high school throughout my 19th year (after I turned 18). That was when 18 year olds could drink, and I would have resented being an adult and still a prisoner in mandatory education (well, technically, I could have dropped out). Nowadays it’s like that for college seniors anyway. They’re the only ones who can drink (legally, I mean, which was true of all of us in high school then – it’s not like we waited).

I still don’t think I would have liked it. But I didn’t like high school anyway. I think I wouldn’t have liked it because I was in a hurry to get out of there. But I also would have been older than everyone else. I would have lorded over the children. I would have felt more mature. I would have been….

According to Gladwell, that would have probably put me at the top of my class, and at the head of consideration for unique opportunities which were available for my grade. No, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I probably would have benefited from it. And in retrospect, what’s a year at that age? So I’m a year older in high school and college. We were all so young.

Let me tell you something about myself. I want to be a writer. I have streaks where I’m writing an hour in the morning consistently before work. I come to the coffee shop on the weekends when I can. And then I go long stretches where I let it go for whatever reason: busy at work, busy at home, tired, depressed. And then I circle back again and start over. I started out a lit major in college, changed it to math, then quit for accounting. But I always came back to writing. I hang on by a thread but I never let go of the idea.

I know we need to write a lot. But 10,000 hours seems like a lot. You’d have to write an hour a day without a day off for 27.397260274 years (approximately) to get there.

Math major.

An aside: It doesn’t happen much anymore, sometimes with economics majors turned housewives, but it used to happen a lot in college, where you might be arguing politics, say, with someone, and they will try to prove their point by saying, “I’m a political science major.”

“Wow, those are some credentials. You mean you’re working towards a degree in it? I guess you’re right then.”

So trust my math. That’s all.

The problem is that it seems to suggest that there’s no way to become a writer without making it your full time profession. No way to do it on the side, a little bit each day, in the AM or in the evening, especially if you have family obligations. You just don’t have the time to get in 10,000 hours. I suppose it’s possible to do 2 hours every day and still work. But it’s hard, especially when you sit at a computer all day for your job, to do it again at home.

And that would still take 13.698630137 years, without missing days.

I don’t believe in the 10,000, but I do get the point. It takes a lot of preparation to become “natural” at something, and I clearly haven’t written enough.

Maybe if I had been the oldest in my class, if I had been held back or if I grew up in a part of the country where I had missed the cutoff, then I would have had the maturity to trust my gut and focus on what would ultimately be my lifelong obsession when I still had opportunity to rack up the hours. Maybe I would have believed in myself. Maybe I would not have thought, “everyone is better than I am.”

Yeah, Malcolm. You have a point. But someone has to be the youngest. I must have at least helped someone else succeed. Someone less talented than I, dammit.

I’m 52 now. I hate telling y’all that. I don’t want you to feel like you can’t relate to me. Cause to you, I should be nothing but words, so why do I have to be old? I was always the youngest, so one thing about is that I still feel young. Young and still insecure.

Here’s something I know, Oprah. I have an advantage. Because even though I have fallen short for 50 years, it’s fortunate I didn’t want to be a professional tennis player. My biological clock alarm would have rung already. But I don’t have to say I missed my chance. Writers have more time.

I’m still young enough. Or is the question whether I am old enough?