Ten thousand hours


Dear Artist,

Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest book, Outliers, has some implications for artists. Like his other books, The Tipping Point and Blink, it’s a refreshing pop-culture examination of well-worked subject matter. Outliers is about the phenomenon of success — what impedes it, and what delivers it. It seems a lot of the qualities we think are going to produce success, aren’t.


Malcolm Gladwell

Raw talent, for example, is far down the list of Gladwell’s succeeding virtues. Being born in the right time and place, to the right parents is more where it’s at. He’s sorry, but he thinks just too many wannabees are disadvantaged from the get-go and don’t really stand a chance. This kind of flies in the face of the self-made-man concept–the guy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps against terrible odds. Gladwell cites all sorts of really bright, well-educated and naturally talented folks who never made it.

Gladwell really gets on track when he suggests that cognitively complex pursuits require ten thousand hours to get good. Drawing on a supply of examples, the rule seems to go for champion chess players, classical music composers, brain surgeons, top hockey players and fine artists. We’re talking fine artists here; those who more or less know what they’re doing.

“Success has to do with deliberate practice,” says Gladwell. “Practice must be focused, determined, and in an environment where there’s feedback.” Further, the penchant for study, reflection, application and hard work is often propelled by obsession. While obsessive behavior may be an antisocial plague to societies and communities at large, it’s total moxie when lone practitioners catch it.

Natural common sense is a big factor too. “You need to have the ability to gracefully navigate the world,” says Gladwell. Apparently you need the ego-force to get what you want. Moreover, no one in any significant profession can do it without the help of others. Even hard-working ten-thousand-hour obsessive-compulsive introverts have to learn to bring agents and enablers into their sphere. For some, this comes naturally, even easily; for others, particularly those in the outlier and self-starting professions, it’s a long and dusty road pocked with trial and error.

Best regards,


PS: “We vary greatly in the natural advantages that we’ve been given. The world’s not fair.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

Esoterica: According to Gladwell, much of what we wish is beyond our control. Some of us are more blessed than others and have opportunities to see things others can’t see. Poverty, particularly at the youth level, is highly restrictive. In education, which is at the root of success, fancy new schools, charismatic principals or new technologies won’t fix things, because the fact is poor kids don’t have the opportunities at home during the school year, and have scanty chances of stimulating summers.


Uninspiring letter
by Madison Mason, New York City, NY, USA

Since I happen to fit into several of those categories, particularly the poor kid slot, your doomy Thanksgiving missive was singularly uninspiring. And if you saw Mr. Gladwell (perhaps Sadwell might be a more fitting name) interviewed recently by Rachel Maddow you’d realize that he’s a totally unimpressive and sissified little nerd who just happened to write a book (and who hasn’t?). Being a successful and personally powerful man myself who’s overcome many of life’s setbacks, I’ll thank you to keep other people’s negative forecasts to yourself, especially on this most spiritual of days. I find your emails encouraging and enlightening and a real plus in this slowly descending culture. I’m surprised that you’d send out something so clearly pessimistic to those who respect you so. And ten thousand hours? At minimum.

There are 7 comments for Uninspiring letter by Madison Mason

From: Terry Albert, Poway, CA — Dec 01, 2008

I am currently reading Outliers, and was hoping Robert Genn would address the “ten thousand hours” subject. I think all of Mr Gladwell’s books are fascinating, and relevant to what we as artists do. Not everyone has written a book, by the way. This book looks at success in a very different way, challenging our long held assumptions about why some people are high achievers and some aren’t. I think we can all be more successful and powerful if we listen to the ideas of others with an open mind, and find relevant meaning for ourselves.

From: Anonymous — Dec 02, 2008

I for one will pass on Mr. Gladwells?? books…

From: Tina Brown — Dec 04, 2008

Wow, what a valuable piece of information — an anonymous person will not read a book!

From: Margaret Bremner — Dec 04, 2008

Robert, as far as I’m aware, is Canadian, and would have celebrated Thanksgiving in October. Strange as it may seem, most of us who are not American do not keep a list of American holidays handy so that we can respond appropriately on every occasion. (Sorry, that has nothing to do with Art or Gladwell or Success. I’ve been living in China and am even more irked by American cultural hegemony here than when I lived in Canada!)

From: dirt poor child — May 16, 2010

I’ve read Mr Gladwell’s other books. He speaks about how poverty in youth is responsible for all sorts of social evils. He and Rachael who neither had poor childhoods can sit a round and discuss in the most condescending tones how lucky they were and how interesting it is that “unsuccessful” people never had a chance. This concept of his which he repeats is without substance. History disagrees. There was once a kid born in a log cabin who became the 16th president.

Libraries are full of books on now famous artists born poor and underprivileged. Lack of drive seems to me the greater deterrent. As a reader of art and history I too take issue with his stance.

Timothy C Tyler

From: Anonymous — May 16, 2010

Mr. Gladwell has never met Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa who jumped the fence to illegally enter The United States. Today he saves American lives as a brain surgeon.

I forgot to add that I have seen Mr. Gladwell being interviewed and I hate to say this but he reminds me of the Simpson’s character Side Show Bob.

From: anon — May 18, 2010

The last two comments just reinforce Gladwell’s point. Poor need a super extra effort to the point of an obsession and extraordinay ability to take risks — in order to succeed.


Obsession the golden key?
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Yoho River Last Light”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Excellent letter and exactly what is needed to face the reality. I expect that you will get a lot of whining back because you don’t propose a “solution” — it’s hard to accept that there ain’t one for an average person who is not pre-conditioned to obsession. The solution may be to stop wanting what you can’t have and start wanting what you can. I think that we miss a lot of good stuff in our lives that’s actually within our reach. Being an overachiever might be greatly overrated these days — perhaps that’s a global psychosis as a reaction to the overpopulation? There are millions of active artists just in North America alone. It does take an overachiever to stand against the competition.


When the real work begins
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada


“Forest sings”
stained glass sculpture
by Jamie McDonald Gray

I must say that the news that it takes “ten thousand hours to get good” is a relief. I’m at the tail end of a four-year BFA and I’m feeling a bit of panic about soon being let out of my incubation to fly out into the wide world. It feels like, even after all those gruelling months, I am really only just beginning, and I do think that’s actually the case. From the buzz in the college, I think students generally think the hard part is over once the diploma is in their hands. But I think school is only the starting ground and that if you know that then you don’t expect to be an expert right off the bat. The real work and practice can only begin once an arts education is done and self-discipline and drive kick in. Or not. But I think we should really feel anxious for those folks who get the pre-10,000 hour brain surgeries.

There is 1 comment for When the real work begins by Jamie McDonald Gray

From: Jilly Willy — May 16, 2010

I have degree in biology/M.Ed. in math/science…have been teaching art 11 year on a houseboat at Lake Lanier…it does take a lonnnnnnng time to get to the place where you know what you know…then you don’t care about the money/fame…my advice…get a 2nd job…right brain/left brain work…


Salvation in helping the young
by Dave Reid, Canada

Thanks for the letter on Gladwell’s book Outliers. I am currently about halfway through it and realizing it is probable (well, maybe not so sure) that the opportunity for fame and glory has passed me by. I think you could have stated his observation that it takes ten thousand hours to become great/at the top of one’s field/entirely knowledgeable to give your readers a sense of the time and effort needed to accomplish the goal. Even though it seems that most people do what they like and focus on their interest and become a leader as an extension of their interest. It is necessary to help the next generation by encouraging them to spend time at what interests them so they become more than proficient at it.


Who chooses the chosen?
by Jon Conkey, Mora, NM, USA


oil painting
by Jon Conkey

Malcolm Gladwell has spotted the truth of our system. Reading his views in Outliers, it is not hard to see why our world is mired in troubles; the truly talented have little access to the world, hacks win out by power, favor, location, ignorance, and convenience, while those who possess great knowledge and genius must go to work and spin the Wheel of Fortune. Many times the ignorant are in charge of choosing these folks, while others must enter via the “status quo” channels… like Einstein going on American Idol to get his talent noticed, it isn’t going to happen.


by PJ Piccirillo, Brockport, PA, USA


Cover of PJ Piccirillo’s book Heartwood by PJ Piccirillo

Your assessment “…the fact is poor kids don’t have the opportunities at home during the school year, and have scanty chances of stimulating summers,” is malarkey. My community’s children’s library sits empty night after night, books un-borrowed, programs un-attended. Our state parks can’t find participants for interpretative, hands-on summer youth programs. Free, community arts connection programs in my town, conducted monthly and funded by grants from my state’s arts council, have never been attended by a person under 30. My son’s Cub Scout den can’t buy members. The opportunities are there for the developing child.

(RG note) Thanks, P.J. I guess Gladwell’s observation is that the parents of poor children don’t always see the value of those wonderful services you mention. “I didn’t need that stuff when I was growing up,” says Dad, “and look how well I turned out.”

There are 3 comments for Malarkey! by PJ Piccirillo

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Dec 01, 2008

Another explanation might be that these people don’t feel welcome, or feel they are being condescended to. While at times this might be a misinterpretation (human dignity is a fragile thing, as we all know), often it is an accurate assessment. While we are bemoaning the lack of attendence, what are we doing to find ways to ensure that all people feel that these resources are relevant to them?

From: Jennifer Weber — Dec 03, 2008

It’s also way too easy (and cheap) just to sit and view the tv, or be amused by the computer. Perhaps it’s that simple? The library and free programs are not even on their radar — privileged or not.

From: Anonymous — Dec 03, 2008

Sometimes people who feel disenfranchised consider these activities things “other” people do. They don’t feel like people like themselves would be there. And even Cub and Boy Scouts involve buying uniforms, books, badges, etc. Also transportation is often a problem, not to mention exhaustion. In this economy many people are working two or three jobs. It seems kind of simplistic to assume those who don’t participate are simply too lazy or totally disinterested. The opportunities might be there, but the opportunity to enjoy them may not be there due to many different and complex circumstances.


Doing it anyway
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada


Lynn Harrison

Naturally, the first thing I did when I read Gladwell’s 10,000 hours idea was pull out a pencil and start calculating, as if the number of hours I’d spent could be proof that “See, I do so know what I’m doing.” (My calculations were imprecise and easy to skew higher or lower, so it’s safe to say the jury’s still out.) Gladwell’s thinking also reminded me of a very experienced songwriter who said at the beginning of his workshop, “It takes 20 years to learn to write a good song and another 10 years to learn to sell it.” Then he immediately asked everyone how many years they’d been writing, thereby sizing up the skill level in the room. Interestingly, the 3-yearers (1,000 hourers?) didn’t demand their money back and leave. People seem to understand the value of “not” being an expert and doing it anyway, making progress step by step. For more insight, listen to my song, Everyone’s an expert.


Referencing Gladwell’s previous books
by Katherine Tyrrell, UK, UK


“Livio de Marchi Pears #2”
Coloured pencil drawing
by Katherine Tyrrell

This is the second time you’ve had a post about Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and while I’m still only half way through his latest! I’d already decided that I was going to write a post for my blog Making A Mark about Outliers and the notion of “10,000 hours” but I still need to finish the book which I only started this week!

I’ve previously referenced Gladwell’s book, Blink. My post In the blink of an eye (which references your post Grabbing the Heart) attempts to relate his concepts about snap judgments to art and artists through comments on the following examples:

The painting you love before somebody tells you who painted it or how much it’s worth.
The painting which you know is ‘wrong’ even if you don’t know why.
The painting which calls to you from the other side of the gallery as you walk in.
When you are always ‘drawn’ to a painter or a painting — but you really don’t know exactly why you find it so inspirational.
That view which won’t leave your brain as you keep walking around en plein air trying to work out what to do.
The moment you add in something to a painting — without any thought — and it goes ‘zing.’
When you trust your hand to draw what ‘feels’ right.
Immediately knowing what needs doing as soon as you turn around the painting ‘which won’t work’ and which has been turned to the wall.
Immediately acting on an idea for a painting which just springs apparently unprompted into your head.

I’m looking forward to coming up with some similar examples for Outliers!


Life’s not fair
by Toni Ciserella, Marysvale, UT, USA


“Nebula Gladiola”
digital artwork
by Toni Ciserella

My parents were hard on us children in that we would be prepared for life (i.e. we weren’t coddled, told we did a great job when we didn’t, or deceived about life’s realities). When we worked hard to win at something only to lose, our parent’s never said, “You should have won” or blamed anyone else for our losing. They gave you 15 minutes on the pity pot and then you went at it again. “Life’s not fair” was their credo.

There are no guarantees. You may have the cards stacked against you. Born at the wrong time. Born to the wrong people. Born in the wrong era. You have but one choice in all of this, as I see it. Keep doing what you love. If you have to work hard at something, whether it makes you wealthy or not, then why worry about the things you can’t control?

There are endless discoveries to come in the study of human psyche. Humans study humans, just like they study the universe around them, and they find that, like stars, some people shine brighter, some are closer to the sun, and yet others burn out, explode, or end up in a glacial state.

The Outliers is a perfect example of our need to know. Our desperate, never-ending, need to know. Of somehow figuring out what the formula is. What planets were lined up at the time of our birth? What moment in time changed the course of our life?

When it’s really all about those 10,000 hours. Those are the hours spent doing what you love. What you obsess about doing.

If, and that’s a big one, you never become an artist in the terms that society currently lays out, but you keep at it even when the odds, stars, era you live in, doesn’t work in your favor, you are a success. Life’s not fair, but who ever told you it was? Get over it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get back to work.


A few more essentials
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France


“Dry Earth”
original painting
by Jeffrey Hessing

Gladwell may be right that obsession often fuels success — if it doesn’t become self-destructive. I also agree that hard work and engaging the help of others are valuable. On the other hand he seems to have left out a few essentials:

Clarity of vision — knowing exactly what you want to do
Faith that you can and will do it
100 % commitment

Anyone from any background can succeed. It may be easier, especially when higher education is required it helps to have wealthy and supportive parents. However I have seen very talented people loose the edge to knock on doors and do whatever it takes because they came from a too supportive environment. Finally, if I got this right, with eight hour days and weekends, holidays and summer off, 10000 hours is only a little over four years. It takes a lot longer to become a “fine artist’ and anyone who is going to operate on my brain better have a lot more training than that!


A lot left unaddressed
by Susan Baskin

I’m currently reading Outliers. I think Malcolm Gladwell presents too much of an elitist, limiting view of success in the world. I’m not crazy about the book. Practice is definitely valuable, but so is talent, and so are brains — no matter what your upbringing. Also, it doesn’t matter what kind of background you came from, if your brain is unhealthy due to too much drinking, damage from trauma like playing soccer etc., you’re just not going to function as well. It’s obvious to me that what he says is going to be snipped and quoted here and there as it suits the purposes of different types of people — for their own agendas. He does not address the limiting effects of a religious upbringing. There’s a lot he doesn’t address.


A vision that works
by Carla Louise, Brighton, UK


Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (2008)

I saw an uplifting BBC documentary a few weeks ago – Imagine: How an Orchestra Saved Venezuela’s Children and thankfully it gives a radical and creative alternative to this Gladwell fellow’s lack of vision and shows that it is possible in even the most disadvantaged of circumstances to change the status quo and increase drastically the potential for world class creative success.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, which caused a sensation at last year’s Proms, is the product of an extraordinary music education system that has been running for more than 30 years. Children as young as two get intensive music lessons designed to steer them away from the dangers of the street. With Scotland now trying its own version of the scheme, Alan Yentob investigates the phenomenon and meets its most successful graduate, 27-year-old conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who next year becomes music director of the LA Philharmonic. The fact that this concept has worked in Venezuala and given a wonderful sense of community, purpose, and talent to so many disadvantaged children, shows that things can change and success can be nurtured.


Robert’s methods
by Russ Henshall, Pulham Market, Norfolk, UK


Winston Churchill at easel
photo by Hans Oswald Wald

This letter set me to thinking about you and the methods you use, the painting you obviously do all week and these letters that you write. Robert, just how do you ever find the time to do all this in one week? Not just one letter, but two! Do you ever sleep, or does the research that you must have to do occupy all night as well? So when are you ever able to sleep? Maybe, like Winston Churchill, you have a bed in your studio (war room) and snatch a kip when you can! Please keep up the flow of info — both my wife, my artist daughter and I look forward to hearing from you.

(RG note) Thanks, Russ and Jan. When I’m in the studio, as I am now until the 17th of January, I just keep long hours and pick away at one thing after another. It may appear as some sort of a mental illness, but it works for me. Regarding finding time for the letters, it’s one way I think I can make a contribution, and I’m a bit obsessive about it. I love writing the letters as much as I enjoy painting, and when people write and tell me they had a breakthrough because of one of the letters, it’s the icing on the cake. Fact is, I keep winging back and forth between my two brains, and for those of you who blog about your art, you may know that one feeds on the other. Who needs sleep?


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Ten thousand hours



From: Bob Posliff — Nov 28, 2008

Gladwell is right on. As an architect who has also invested time and effort in painting, chess, boxing, fly casting and jazz, I concluded long ago that in any of these pursuits, and I’m sure others as well, there needs to be a natural ability at the outset. Then, with a lot of hard work, one may reach the pinnacle. Without the natural ability to begin with, one will not make it to the top. But do have fun trying and never give up.

From: Dale A Goorskey — Nov 28, 2008

Sounds like Gladwell is espousing some thing I call secular predestination.

From: Podi Lawrence — Nov 28, 2008

I agree that being born in the right “circles” is possibly the biggest advantage an artist can have, but would add that having a wealthy background also helps. For the rest, an inner conviction is what drives us on to spending 10000 hours practicing (and possibly tens of thousands of dollars). If you are not “born” to it, having the support of a wife/mother/partner makes all the difference. Someone to provide support. I know many male artists and a few women, who have reached notoriety and “success” as a direct result of having this support. The support that allows the time and space the artist needs, to experiment, to think, and to carry the word to galleries, and help with marketing your product. If this support is not there (and indeed if your partner is not convinced of your “talent”) then it becomes necessary for the artist themselves to market their work. Without contacts in the right places, rejections occur again and again however “good” your work. And rejections do hurt, no matter how good you are at shrugging it off. The artist has to have a very thick skin in order to continue — this procedure in itself is destructive to creativity and many a brilliant artist falls by the wayside. What we need is more sponsorship of the order of the Medici’s to enable talented artists who are not born in the right circles to dedicate their life without either turning away or becoming impoverished.

From: Fredericks — Nov 28, 2008

The problem with shoelacing all artforms together, is that there can be notable differences in the arts. For intance, people who are naturally born singers with a natural ear for music and are blessed with a golden voice can be great achievers. I have heard many noteable singers report in interviews that they didn’t have a clue how they vaulted into fame. It just seemed to happen. They were “discovered”.

Rare are the Grandma Moses’s who will be vaulted into fame on the strength of discovery. For most of us, the path is stone covered and its a journey of trial and error, experience, and a lot of time study time.

Most artists, I suspect, have a modicum of innate natural talent, or they wouldn’t attracted to art. But yet, there are those for whom the journey to public success is enhanced by a greater sprinkling of innate natural talent, intelligence, and being born into the home of parents who are artists.

From: Gene Martin — Nov 28, 2008

Someone needs to tell the government, and liberals, about this. They think throwing enough money at education is the answer. Is it really possible not everyone starts out in life with equal skills? Blasphemy!!

From: Bev SF — Nov 28, 2008

I agree … having extreme talent doesn’t guarantee you success in life … you need to be in the right “circles” to make it happen.

From: paul b — Nov 28, 2008

As Gladwell says, the introverted perfectionist with 10,000 hours of study that decides to reach for success, probably will not achieve it because they do not have the personality. If they do achieve it, its is probably luck.

Even worse, living in a upper class family cultivates a personality prone to succeed and getting into an ivy league university is more about personality than grades or IQ.

My inclination to rebel against all this even further proves the point. I need some Zen. Zen will rescue me.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Nov 28, 2008

Ah, the question: if no one sees it, is it still art?

Mr. Gladwell places success squarely into the predominant philosophy of the market economy. Doesn’t mean some of what he says isn’t valid. Yeah, so who doesn’t know it takes 10,000 hours– or whatever– to get good at something you are passionate about. And, being human beings, who among us has ever accomplished anything without teaching and example? We aren’t made that way.

And if “accomplishment” is an outcome of environment (and to a large extent, I believe that’s true), then where are our priorities in creating that environment for those NOT born into privilege? This applies not just to art, but all the other human means of creating, including such things as fixing motors to being a gracious bank teller (neither of which I can do, but which I admire nonetheless). Isn’t it about human grace and dignity as well as creativity, and where possible, making a satisfying living out of whatever we do?

“No Child Left Behind” is a sham that creates exactly the opposite environment. But somewhere in what Mr. Gladwell says, is perhaps a clue about what might really work. And it doesn’t necessarily mean being born into it. Too many examples to refute this, without even a stretch. I could introduce you to many such creatively successful people right here in the tiny village I live in. No, not wealthy, but rich.

From: Vincent — Nov 28, 2008

Western society (and this is expanding globally as well) creates an illusion by letting poor into Starbucks, Costco, fashion discount wearhouses and cruiseships — an illusion of wealth. In a masterful way this hides the fact that the real meaning of wealth will never be available to them — an opportunity to explore their innate talents. Poor are obligated to spend the time of thir lives on “jobs”. Availability of hobbies, including the overwhelming offering of art classes and clubs only furher enhances this illusion. Is this a good thing? Is it better to live an illusion or a hard fact?

From: Jeanne Rhea — Nov 28, 2008
From: Chris Everest — Nov 30, 2008

This all comes as a real shock. I figured on growing my hair long, buying a studio on the left bank in Paris and just winging it. I kinda hoped it would just happen but oh well. That’s one hour done. You know that diamond skull by Damien Hirst — I made one just like it in woodwork at school.

From: Sue Cowan — Nov 30, 2008
From: Carol Campbell — Nov 30, 2008

Thank you so much for this timely reminder. ‘Tis the season for burnout, and I’d already been feeling the symptoms nudging.

From: Alex Nodopaka — Nov 30, 2008

Discovering art is as blind as justice is until it is spoken in courts. Art must be weighted & exhibited for it to be valued. Without pedigree art is only a mutt.

The artists that remained are those that were paid for their labor not those that were not except for the few incognito.

From: Nick Stone — Nov 30, 2008

So, 10,000 hours is 416 days or 1.14 years. Wait a minute, I can’t work 24 hours a day so at 8 hours a day that’s 1250 working hours or nearly three and a half years. When I was 21 I couldn’t contemplate waiting that long, or working those hours so I dropped out of University. Now, as I arrive at sixty, I am wondering if there is enough time left. One thing I have learnt: you may not have been born in the right time and place but if you wait long enough, it will probably come around.

As usual, another thought provoking piece.

From: Evelyn Wray — Nov 30, 2008

Your message resonates with me once again. I am fascinated by the seemingly invisible hand that pens to me suggestions at exactly the moment I am ready to receive them! The point that ‘mused’ me today about the tipping point in my career as a leading edge living artist is your comment about bringing an agent in. My agent’s call could be the road least traveled or an email answered, but I’ll know. IMO, There isn’t any cookie cutter recipe for success anymore than there is a cookie cutter recipe for the art in the first place. The convergence between artist and agent simply will be. Maybe it is confidence because I allow that seemingly invisible hand?

From: Edna Hildebrandt — Nov 30, 2008

I believe that if you you really want to succeed you have to work at it with all that you have. My father is a great believer in doing it. He achieved his goal against all odds. He did not give up until he succeeded with what he set out to do.

From: Dorcas M. O’Reilly — Nov 30, 2008

How does Mr. Gladwell define these “natural advantages” by which we achieve success? While I agree with him that a succeeding virtue is 10,000 hours of diligent work in one’s chosen endeavors to achieve the necessary knowledge and skills, the rest — right time, place of birth, and parents — sounds a little too deterministic to me. Belonging to the Depression generation, I know better. A lot of very successful folks come from that era in spite of being in the wrong time and place with very poor parents and few opportunities.

Personal success can only be defined by the individual and (in my humble opinion) cannot be fully measured by external criteria. How many people who are deemed successful in the public eye are perfectly miserable in their private lives, and their “naturally advantaged” offspring go on to create even greater disasters in their own lives? Too often, making money is equated with success while making well-considered personal choices isn’t even a possibility because people don’t take the time to define what make them happy (or miserable). That takes a little more than 10,000 hours.

I find nothing wrong about being obsessed if you are obsessed about the right things. It is this kind of passionate concentration that keeps you focused in spite of external factors. I am obsessed about art and love creating it. I don’t need anyone to tell me I am successful or not when I am this happy. I wake up to each new day knowing that I have so many opportunities to enrich my knowledge and skills. Maybe Mr. Gladwell had this in mind when he cited moving gracefully through the world. I’m not sure. I do it without an enabler or an agent. Does that disqualify me??

From: Jack Dickerson — Nov 30, 2008

Talent or not? ?10,000 hours might tell. Or not. I have no idea whether I have talent. And it is not really important to me. Everyone has a different idea of what talent means. Here is what I DO know. I HAVE to paint. It has become a big part of who I am. I am willing to work my ass off to paint and improve, and become someone who can make people feel good with my work. That is one person at a time–not groups or companies, just one person at a time. I have no fear of what it will take–the rest of my life. 10,000 hours is 8 hours a day, 2700 hours a year, 4 years. Not possible. Not true. I will take way more than that. What will it really take? Determination. Every single day of the week. All day. Consistency. Painting every day, no matter what the result. The willingness to learn from ourselves and others. It means we need to teach–ourselves and others. It means–like anything else, like plumbing, carpentry, hedge fund managing–you have do it over and over again, until you get really good at it. Does it take talent? Maybe. But I would bet my life that it takes gregarious, flexible, consistent and determined attitude–working from the inside out. AND the outside in.?

From: Linda Saccoccio — Nov 30, 2008

It seems in the vein of the letter I sent not long ago asking you questions about your “success.” So when Malcolm Gladwell speaks of success, how is he defining it? It is that one is seen in the world as someone who has financial wealth that is steady, a beautiful home in a beautiful location, means to afford leisure, travel, fineries in life?? Or is his definition of success about the joy of getting to do the work we love and feeling free from oppression? And how much do these go hand in hand? They do seem to overlap in a way. Artists must have support, both in the practical sense and in the monetary sense to be able to follow their bliss steadily and evolve with it. An artist needs support in order to have the time and space to muse and create. Does he address this? What are the basic tricks to this, and how much do you think the strategy varies from person to person?

From: John Ferrie — Nov 30, 2008

This letter disturbs me. I have to wonder where this man’s head is at. First of all, what is success? Is the “Contract of Fame and Fortune” where it is easy street and the road is paved with well wishers tossing cash at them and even the simplest line drawing sells for umpteen Millions really success!! PLEASE!! We all have our own levels of success. When I look at other artist’s that I deem successful they all seem to say the same thing “It is just more work”. Like comedians, artists are compulsive worriers, “will this read?”, “will this sell?”. “will people come and see?”. The struggle never ends… Many artists who are what I call “Uber-talented”, are often not on the path of success. Some who have been on the launch pad of global recognition either are not ready for it or just don’t want it. And this bla bla bla about disadvantaged or privileged as opposed to pulling yourself up by your boot straps is all a bunch of hooey! You either want it or you don’t!

And are these “Ten Thousand Hour Obsessive Compulsive Workers” any happier than the rest of us? I am astonishingly sure that at the end of our lives, nobody is looking over their shoulder and is glad they spent all those saturdays and sundays at the office. And finally at the end of the day, I have to ask where is the love? Love is where the real success is!

From: Marilyn MacDonald — Nov 30, 2008

I have been looking all over for a (diary) notebook like yours. It looks like a small binder that has pages that can be replaced with only the word “date” written on them. Did you purchase it locally?

From: Graham Watson-Thomas — Nov 30, 2008

My world is now a lot smaller, 8’x10′, a garden studio. Bought for my birthday, with love from my wife and built by one of my boys, I move in this weekend.

It will contain:

boxes full of photo reference material

my favorite easel

my grandad’s 100yr old small and tall storage cabinet 40 year old sable brushes still going strong…less a few hairs my old traveling paints an old radio a bit of heating, a kettle and the whole thing wrapped inside using stretched canvas.

It’s messy, smells of ‘house rabbit’ around the carpet edges.

It’s fine and for the moment traveling without moving is very appealling

From: Gina Weston — Nov 30, 2008
From: Russ Hogger — Nov 30, 2008

I have never read anything by Gladwell and from reading a lot of the comments here I don’t think I ever will. What I gather from all of this, Gladwell is an unequivocal snob.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 01, 2008

While there is some truth in any thoughtful theory espoused as to why we can’t, won’t or are unable to succeed being born without wealth and being in the “right “ time and place, it goes without saying there are at least 10,000 examples to the contrary.

In a world as complex and varied as ours, examples of every kind can be found to show successes and failures that are contradictory to Mr.Gladwell’s yardstick. If we speak in generalities his findings will be more on mark. There are at least 10,000 reasons as to why these successes and failures came to be. Talent alone won’t guarantee success nor will being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Without overstating the 10,000 hours theory, I would estimate that amount of time as a good starting point for learning any skill but won’t guarantee a successful outcome. While I do agree that success of any kind would not happen without the help of others, public worthiness does not offset the personal inner success only you can achieve whether you were born poor or in money.

A definition for true success is as varied as those striving to achieve it. The trick is to decide for yourself what success means to you strive to reach that. Some may have already found it and still don’t measure up to Mr.Gladwell’s standard. Many can be successful without notoriety or monetary gain. Many can be considered successful and still be considered poor.

For the most part I think this whole idea is an exercise in futility and also to sell a book. If we start to think in this manner while trying to measure up to any standard other than our own, we will prove Mr.Gladwell correct.

I will concede this, if I were to judge success by his standards, I would not get out of bed tomorrow for I fall into all the areas for reasons not to be successful.

From: Rena Williams — Dec 02, 2008

What’s all this baloney about “success” ?

From: Delilah Adams — Dec 02, 2008

What happened to George Bush, the CEOs of the big three automakers, the financial experts, Lehman Brothers, etc? They all had privilege and expertise. Where did that get them and this country? I will not be reading this silly book.

From: Jack Dickerson — Dec 02, 2008

There are literally 1000s of examples of people who have become extremely successful following a childhood of severe hardship–even becoming leaders in their professions. I also heard the author on “on Point” and found he was quite defensive and not open to other thoughts on the subject. I suspect the writing of this book was with the hope of financial success, rather than real-life.

From: Miriam Katz — Dec 02, 2008

Some people seem to be upset about Gladwell’s views. It’s always enlightening to read about others opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. As long as it makes you think and just take from it what you need, even his depressing theories can be interesting. In my own opinion, the word “Obsession” has a bad wrap. Having one is not necessarily a disadvantage, as long as it is constructive. And in order to be successful at anything, one needs to be obsessive about it, especially in today’s highly competitive world. But it takes more than an obsession. It also takes some talent and an intuitive feel for the business world.

As far as being born to the right family, with the right connections, the best education, etc., are concerned, clearly all of those can be great advantages — but only for those who possess the right combination of talent, obsessive desire and business sense. As long as a ghetto kid has those qualities, he or she will succeed. Cases in point: Gordon Parks, the great photographer, among his many other talents, was a ghetto kid who grew up on the streets and had absolutely no advantages. My own father, Nathan Katz, an immigrant with a high school education, no connections, and $75 in his pocket upon arriving in the United States in the 1950’s, became a philanthropist and a real estate mogul in New York. Growing up under his roof, I can tell you that he was obsessed with his passion. And I learned at an early age that obsession can be a very good thing.

From: Joyce Goden — Dec 04, 2008

Hi all, for the most part I agree with the above letter, (being born in the right circles would help). But for me I think it was different.

My Dad worked hard on the railroad to provide for our family, we did not have a tv when I was a child.

Without a tv I developed a love for drawing and painting, creativity followed as a bonus.

I doubt if there are many poor kids that don’t have crayons and paper, (coloring is a great baby sitter).


Adding up the time spent making art (from the time I started selling) is between 30,000 and 40,000 hours, and I’m still not there yet.

After mastering their craft I think artists lack in business savy, maybe we don’t look at our art right, we sometimes get attached to a painting, ect. (most doctors are lousy at business too).

Anyway, thanks again Robert for donating your time and the marketing and business informational letters.

From: Nick Stone — Dec 04, 2008

So, 10,000 hours is 416 days or 1.14 years. Wait a minute, I can’t work 24 hours a day so at 8 hours a day that’s 1250 working hours or nearly three and a half years. When I was 21 I couldn’t contemplate waiting that long, or working those hours so I dropped out of University. Now, as I arrive at sixty, I am wondering if there is enough time left. One thing I have learnt: you may not have been born in the right time and place but if you wait long enough, it will probably come around.

From: Anna — Dec 07, 2008

All of Robert’s letters are worth reading in my opinion and I am thankful that he does NOT keep his opinions to himself. After reading most of the responses on this page. I can’t help but wonder why people get so up in arms with Mr Gladwell’s take on things, and then respond with a refusal to read his “rubbish”. I have always enjoyed absorbing as much knowledge as possible, be it in keeping with or completely contrary to my own beliefs and opinions (probably in part due to being a self taught artist). Some information has been instrumental in bringing on some fantastic “light bulb” moments (e.g. in Robert’s “working your muses” , thanks to a subscriber’s click back, I believe I have pinpointed my muse — Yay!). And although I have a sneaking suspicion that alot of Mr Gladwell’s opinions will do nothing more than rub me up the wrong way, I am quite certain that there could also be some valuable moments within the book that could help me along my way, and as per usual I will take on what I choose to (the good stuff that will help me get where I’m going) and discard what I consider to be of no use to me. I do believe that this approach so far for me has been very helpful in getting me closer to achieving my goals. Approach everything with an open mind, there are lessons to be learned and positive aspects to be taken even from the most depressive ramblings (even if it is only the complete relief that you are not as miserable and negative as the writer). I once made a comment in an art class (a few months after I started painting) that I wanted to become an exhibiting fulltime artist. A fellow student (twice my age) shot me down, scoffing and informing me that we may all wish to be one of those but it was not likely that I would ever be. I have never forgotten this moment or the woman with the negative attitude, and I often giggle as I sit in my studio 4 years later, because I am a fulltime, galleried artist. And no, I do not come from a privileged background, I have no art education, nor do I have any contacts with the right people, I don’t even live in the right country. I just had a bit of raw talent, alot of enthusiasm (in my mind I had finally found my calling), and then I worked my but off, with obsession sitting in the chair beside me! And I am guessing that my little art friend (twice my age) is still sitting in art class taking pot shots at the newbies ;) My journey has not been full of flowers and fluffy bunnies, I have been knocked back and criticized here and there and I am certain my marketing and people skills leave alot to be desired. So, I work hard and let my paintings and the galleries do the talking for me. I have found my strengths and worked around my weaknesses, and these findings are most probably due to searching out knowledge (in books, online etc etc) and successful examples to aspire to. Its in the attitude dude!

From: Leslie — Dec 07, 2008

Agree 100%. I am absolutely fried after teaching; it’s hard to get the precise language that everyone will understand, especially with beginners who do not yet have the vocabulary.

And some students will just not stop talking.

A few years ago, I had two students who came together, sat together and chatted all evening. Their painting was terrible and when they asked me what was wrong, I told them that talking was left brain and painting was right brain and that it was pretty difficult to have both sides of the brain engaged simultaneously. I asked them had they ever thought on not talking? They were horrified at the thought, as it was their evening out together. It was very difficult to give them even the tiniest attention after that. They never came back and I was relieved.





The Sun butts in

collage, watermedia painting
by Gayle Gerson, Grand Junction, CO, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes E. Joan Folinsbee of Thornbury, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Success may partly be due to “being born in the right place,” etc. but it is also a matter of fashion. Many artists are successful, i.e. become known, and able to earn a living from their art, for a year or a decade or more, and then fade away. But they do not stop making art because they cannot. It is ingrained, and still gives them great pleasure in the doing.”

And also Michael J. Morris-Zamora of Bayamon, Singapore, who wrote, “This is one of your most touching letters — mainly through the Esoterica. This is so truthful and so unseen by the ones that should SEE. Some prefer to ignore the crying that comes from underneath to escape from responsibility.”

And also Edith Allison who wrote, “What is an introverted, obsessed artist / spiritual intuitive to do????? Please!”




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