Wednesday, May 27, 2009

10,000 Hours

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the pull of what you really love.” -- Rumi

Jack Kerouac, literary luminary, Uber-beat and American legend, had a secret. Only one of his famous friends, the poet Philip Whalen, knew. Not Ginsberg, not Burroughs, not Ferlinghetti, not Snyder. Kerouac kept his secret hidden his entire life. In a brand new book published by the Jack Kerouac Archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, author and curator Isaac Gewirtz reveals the truth. All you bookish, skinny-armed English majors better sit down. Ready? Jack Kerouac was a sports fanatic. That’s right, and he went to college on a football scholarship – so much for the carefully nurtured enmity between jocks and the literate crowd. But that’s not the secret part. No one knew a thing about the baseball players, horses and jockeys that really enthralled Kerouac. It was all in his head.

Kerouac created a rich and elaborate alternate reality – a wide world of sports that only he knew about. He went far beyond the fantasy baseball we know of today, a beast of an entirely different stripe. Kerouac invented leagues with fictional teams and full rosters, engaging them in “games” and writing about all of it, play by play, in endless detail. He created baseball cards for his made-up stars. He invented an elaborate symbolic language to record play combinations and statistical analysis. Then he did the same thing with horse racing, analyzing everything from horse-jockey combinations to track conditions. He wrote broadsides, designed charts and illustrated posters. There are boxes full of this stuff. From a very young age Kerouac reveled in the intoxicating power of storytelling.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” he argues that genius is not innate. Rather, it is simply the product of 10,000 hours of intentional, focused practice. In other words, the Mozarts, Claptons and Kerouacs of the world are not born, they’re made. Our old, apparently erroneous notion of genius has finally been debunked. Of course genes play a role – you should have at least an above average predilection for music or language or sports or whatever it is you want to master, but the rest is all hard work.

According to Gladwell’s calculations, it takes about ten years to get 10,000 hours. That averages out to about three hours a day. If you can only do an hour and a half, give it twenty years. By the time Kerouac sat down to write some of the most defining novels in American literature – “On the Road,” “The Dharma Bums,” and others – his 10,000 hours were long behind him.

Thinking back on my own life, I see a pattern. Very early on I fell in love with storytelling. In fifth grade Mr. Martini would have us write one page stories. Then he’d ask for volunteers to read theirs aloud in front of the class. Like any other nine year old I may have been shy at first, but as the weeks wore on I grew increasingly eager. Soon my hand was the first in the air. I’d step to the front of the class and read my story, suddenly unusually confident. I remember like it was yesterday the silence that fell over the room, the way the other kids leaned forward, their faces playing out the feelings I fed them. They laughed at the jokes, gasped at the surprises and applauded long and hard at the end. I was hooked. At my poetry readings, my musical performances and in front of my philosophy classes, I’m still that awkward nine year old kid, suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a joyfully confident storyteller and solicitor of truths.

Throughout elementary school my best friend Mark Harriman and I were huge Mad magazine fans. So we did what seemed perfectly logical at the time. We created our own humor magazine. We drew cartoons, wrote film and television parodies, had recurring features, agonized over graphics and layout design. We worked with single-minded focus and abandon. We didn’t know we were working. We were just having fun. The hours flew by. We laughed till we cried. We thought we were brilliant.

Also during these early years I began playing piano and guitar. At first it was only because my mom made me. I hated practicing piano. I remember sitting at the piano playing scales with tears streaming down my face while the other kids played outside. Now I realize that it was much harder for my mom than it was for me – the last thing a mother ever wants to see on her son’s face is tears. But she knew that on the other side of my temporary discomfort was an abiding joy. I am endlessly grateful that my mom offered her discipline until I could come up with my own. Once I got over the awkward early flailing and uncovered the joy of music, I never stopped. I fell in love.

Sometimes people ask me, “How did you become a songwriter?” I just smile and say, “I really don’t know.”

In the “Bhagavad Gita” Krishna says that we become what we love. Love creates longing. Longing becomes intention. Intention becomes thought. Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions repeated become habits. Habit constructs character. We become what we do. In this way our inner purpose, what Aristotle called our entelechy, conducts the moments and events of our lives just as an orchestra conductor draws the disparate elements before him into a singular work of beauty and grace. The most effective way to construct a joyful and effective life of value and purpose is to become a co-creator, to cooperate and collaborate with your own inner drive. “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell always told his students, and when you do, the universe begins to collude in unforeseeable ways. When we let ourselves be silently drawn by the pull of what we really love, as Rumi suggests, we can’t help but begin to move in the direction of our dreams. The line between work and play dissolves. Our joy knows what to do. We have only to do it. For at least 10,000 hours.