Sometime between the popularization of You Tube and the birth of Amazon’s self publishing platform the notion has been bruited about that if you keep at writing books or making videos you will get really good at it. This notion has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour thesis” which says that if you practice the violin for 10,000 hours you can play at Carnegie Hall. I’ve always thought this was pure bunkum and now some scientists have come forth to rebut this idea.
The new paper, the most comprehensive review of relevant research to date, comes to a different conclusion. Compiling results from 88 studies across a wide range of skills, it estimates that practice time explains about 20 percent to 25 percent of the difference in performance in music, sports and games like chess.
We live in a time that Andrew Keen calls “the cult of the amateur” and as much as I would like to encourage the Eric Clapton wannabes, spending 10,000 hours in your room copying his licks ain’t going to make you a brilliant guitar player. When I was on the road with The Band in the early 1970’s we would inevitably end up at a party after the concert. As the evening wore on the instruments would come out and a jam would start. Where the decent amateur would always come up short was in his (or her) ability to improvise. The ability to react to another player separated the great from the good.
In my book Outlaw Blues, I posited a Gresham’s Law of media–that bad content drives out good. Gresham’s Law is about information asymmetry, which was clarified by George Akerlof in a paper called “The Market for Lemons:Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”.
Akerlof says that when you are buying a used car you assume the worst—it’s a lemon—in your negotiation stance. Thus the seller of a really good used car always loses out. No one will pay for more than “average quality”. The average consumer of media in our Broadband universe is like the buyer of the used car, she assumes the content is “of average quality” and thus the rise of what Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson calls Free: The Future of a Radical Price. If the You Tube video I’m about to watch turns out to be a “lemon”, I have lost nothing so long as it is free, except my attention to the Google ad accompanying the video. Does bad content drive out good?
We used to solve this problem by having critics who would weed out the good stuff and warn us to stay away from the dreck. But nobody listens to critics anymore (witness Transformers) so I will default to paying as little as possible for my entertainment, even if that means stealing it.
I still believe in genius. I want to believe “ars longa, vita brevis”–that art is the only thing that lasts, the only way man makes his mark on the ages. Lets stop fooling ourselves that anyone can be a genius–fouling up the Internet with hours of crap. All you have is your own vote as to what’s good and what is not. Don’t waste another second on the second rate.