There are those who are talented, those who work hard, those who are able to sail through, those that no matter how hard they work. Such is the accepted wisdom.
A study was carried out of students at the Academy of Music in Berlin. Violinists were divided into three groups: those who were likely to become a principle violinist or soloist, those who would be good enough to perform professionally in an orchestra, those who would end up as talented amateurs and music teachers. The three groups all started playing violin around the age of five. They all put in around the same hours of practice, two or three hours a week, until they reached the age of eight, then the groups began to diverge. The more ‘talented’ students put in more practice hours, six hours a week at age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, by the time they reached the age of twenty they were putting in more than 30 hours a week practice, more hours than many put in on their full-time job. By the time they had reached the age of twenty, this select group had each put in over 10,000 hours of practice! By comparison, the middle ranking group 8,000 hours and the group destined to be music teachers 4,000 hours each.
A study comparing professional pianists with amateur pianists revealed similar results. The amateurs rarely practiced more than three hours a week as they were growing up, totaling about 2,000 hours of practice each by the time they reached the age of twenty. The professionals steadily racked up their practice hours as they were growing up so that by the time they had reached the age of twenty they had put in over 10,000 hours of practice each.
What was especially noticeable in both these studies was that there were no ‘natural’ musicians who succeeded due to some innate musical talent, nor were there any ‘grunts’ who no matter how hard they worked, how many hours they put in, did not succeed.
What these two studies appeared to show was that those musicians who made it to the top, did not work harder, or much harder, they worked much, much harder than their contemporaries.
There are though exceptions, Mozart for example, a child prodigy? The earliest pieces attributed to the child prodigy were nothing special, may have been written with the help of his father, may have even been written by his father. His first few concertos were nothing special. Nothing exceptional until he reaches the age of twenty-one, by which time he had been composing for ten years. Mozart did not produce his greatest masterpieces until late in life, by which time he had been composing for more than twenty years.
In the contemporary music scene, we have Lennon and McCartney. Before The Beatles hit America and became an overnight success, they had been playing together for ten years. They played in the Cavern in Liverpool, in the clubs in Hamburg. In Hamburg they were playing eight hours a night for seven days a week! When you play for this length of time, you do not just churn out the same old numbers like clockwork puppets, as I have seen performers in hotels who you could set your watch by depending upon what they are playing, you improvise, you have a vast repertoire.
The Beatles put in 106 nights, five hours or more per night on their first tour in Hamburg, on their second trip 92 nights, their third trip 48 nights, plus two more Hamburg gigs. In total 270 nights in two and a half years. By the time of their first chart success in 1964, they had performed an estimated 1200 times, something most performers do not achieve in their entire career.
Paul McCartney still likes to takes to the road and considers himself to be a rock n roll performer. His classic performance some years back in Moscow live in Red Square.
It is not just The Beatles, take The Rollings Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, David Gilmour (of Pink Floyd). These guys are still on the go. They did not achieve instant stardom on some crap TV programme like X Factor or Pop Idol, they worked the clubs, put in the hours. They played because they enjoyed music, enjoyed performing. The sad thing is that people’s taste has become so dumbed down that they tune into these ghastly TV shows and convince themselves they are seeing talent.
And the problem is made worse by the record industry, now global corporations, where music, or more likely muzak, is a product, the next big act, here today, gone tomorrow. No attempt to nurture talent. Where are the music producers like George Martin? Even most of the music studios are dying and closing down. The music business is dying, but the problem is of course not the greedy industry but those irritating people who persist in downloading off the Internet.
I came across two young lads, Liam and Dylan, playing on the streets of Brighton. I could not believe how good they were. They were attracting a sizable audience. And why were they playing on the street? Practice.
I find guys who go by the name of Jon’s Jam playing in a pub. Some times they are great, sometimes they are crap, it depends upon who is playing. They are just bunch of guys who get together in a pub to play their music.
What is true of the music industry is also true of the book publishing world. Gone are the publishers with an interest in literature, if the names survive at all it is as an imprint of a global corporation where a book has become a product. The same is true of bookshops.
There are writers who have, despite the odds in today’s commercial world, succeeded through talent and word of mouth. Monica Lewycka started writing poetry when she was four years old, she never gave up her dream of being a writer. Paulo Coelho always dreamed of being a writer, the dream survived being placed in a mental institution for the insane, he worked as a music producer, wrote lyrics for top ten hits, eventually he was recognised.
Many other writers have followed this path, have not written what fashion or money dictates, have not tried to write the next me-too Da Vinci Code, have written often quite quirky novels or at least novels that are different, but have succeeded, more often than not spread by word of mouth.
A study was carried out of top hockey players in Canada. Something strange emerged. Their birthdays were not randomly distributed throughout the year, but instead fell under certain star signs. Aha, think astrologers, the planetary alignments …
But no, it was not astrology. The kids were picked at an early age to play in their local teams. The deciding factor was their age. The older kids had a head start. Had the younger ones been born that little bit later, they would have had a head start as the oldest kids in the following year. Those picked out get more coaching, get to play more often. From these teams kids are selected out for the next level, better coaching, more practice and so it goes on until by the time they are in national teams they have put in far more practice than anyone one else and had the best coaching available.
If we look at key players in the computer industry we find something very curious: Bill Joy (Unix, Sun Microsystems, 1954) Bill Gates (Microsoft, 1955), Scott McNealy (Sun Microsystems, 1954), Vinhod Khosla, (Sun Microsystems, 1955), Andy Bechtolsheim (Sun Microsystems, 1955), Eric Schmidt (Novell Networks, Google, 1955), Paul Allan (Microsoft, 1953), Steve Ballmer (Microsoft, 1956), Steve Jobs, (Apple, 1955). All were born 1955 or the years clustering around 1955! What is special about those years, something they were putting in the water, planets in alignment?
The answer it turns out is what they had access to. All had access to very powerful computers or in the case of Steve Jobs, the components.
It was not until I started writing and noting these dates I realised something. I too had access during the same critical period, late 1960s early 1970s, to very powerful computers, or for their day, very powerful computers. I also, like Steve Jobs, had access to the components, not just comments but the parts. Access in itself was not enough, it was what you then did. I was at an early age building crystal sets (radios) then a five-valve short wave radio. When I should have been studying, or at the very least sleeping, I was programming a very powerful computer, something that few people had access to, though I did not know that at the time. I was designing and running games, later I designed one of the first anti-virus packages. A decade later I did a a Masters Degree. I used to have long discussions with a professor of Software Engineering, the techniques I read in papers of learned journals I had already developed and was using. When I wrote code, if it were it printed, it had the elegance of esoteric poetry, if not, I used to rewrite it.
I no longer write software, never worked directly in the field, but when I talk with software designers, I find I have forgotten more than they seem to know. I still write, but not in C or other computer code, not software, I write, only the language used has changed.
1955 was the year. Born earlier and you would probably be working at IBM, with a wife and family and mortgage, a comfortable life and unwilling to take risks. Born later and the opportunity was gone.
Being in the right place at the right time is not enough, it is knowing how to take advantage of the opportunities life offers, willing to take risks, take the path less travelled. Some people are regarded as lucky. No, it is like Santiago in The Alchemist, knowing how to read symbols, understand the language of the Soul of the World.
Charles Darwin happened to be in the right place at the right time, but he also knew how to grasp the opportunities that life gave him, plus he had put in the hours of work that enabled him to recognise and tie together what was before him.
Look at any top ranking sportsmen, be they tennis player, footballer or boxer, then look at the hours they put in each day on training. Steve Redgrave is the only person to have won gold medals in five consecutive Olympic Games. He retired because he no longer wished to put in the hours of training.
As the old adage goes: practice makes perfect.