“Ten Thousand Hours”

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint,
The greats were great because they paint a lot.”

—Macklemore, “Ten Thousand Hours”

Some of you know Macklemore because of “Thrift Shop.” Some know him because of “Same Love,” his ballad in support of gay marriage. I fell in love with his work some years ago when I encountered his early song “White Privilege.” In the quote above, he’s not saying anything new—the title of the song and other lyrics make his debt to Malcolm Gladwell plain. The point is that if you want to be good at anything, you have to practice it a long, long time, and due to his long hours of work, Macklemore figured out a way to say it well—so well that the words grip me and refuse to let go.

In his book Outliers: the Story of Success (2008), Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything. To put that in perspective, if you started on January 1st, 2014, and worked at one single skill for ten hours a day, seven days a week, you’d be a true master of the skill on October 7th, 2016. Gladwell invented his number, of course, and everyone varies, but Gladwell has his reasons, and his central point is entirely sound. There are vanishingly few Mozarts in the world, child prodigies—and even Mozart reached the pinnacle of his genius because he took his talents and used them constantly. Macklemore works eighty-hour weeks.

So, Friends, let’s consider: if it would take nearly three years to master a skill while working at it non-stop, how long do you think it would take to master a skill only practicing it once a week? For an hour on Sunday mornings, say?

Let’s put it this way: if you start going to Meeting for Worship on Sunday, January 5th, 2014, and attend religiously, week in and week out, but never worship or enter the silence any other time, you’ll reach your ten thousandth hour and your mastery on Sunday, August 25th, 2205. If you’ve already been going once a week without fail for the past thirty years, of course, you’ll get there rather quicker, and if you arrive late now and then, of course, you may need to throw on another decade. Or, as I’ve paraphrased Macklemore’s lyrics:

            The saints aren’t saints because at birth they could pray;
            The saints are saints because they pray a LOT.

If you want to be a truly Spirit-led Friend, Meeting for Worship can’t be the only place where you learn how to do it. Meeting for Worship can be the lesson that you then take home to work on, or it can be the public performance. But it can’t be the only time we practice. If you want to be grounded in the Light, you need to practice day in and day out. If you miss a day, that’s fine, but remember, that puts your goal one day further off.

Daniel Berrigan, the famous anti-war priest, once told an interviewer that he prayed three hours a day. The interviewer challenged him, wondering if Berrigan would really stick to such a regimen in the face of some major, important event. Berrigan thought about it for a long moment or two, and then acknowledged that yes, if there was something huge happening that day, he probably wouldn’t pray three hours. He’d likely do four.

(Berrigan, going by Gladwell’s math, gained his mastery in a smidgen over nine years, or maybe a smidgen under if there were a lot of those four-hour days.)

I don’t want to make people feel guilty. And heaven knows I’m nowhere near my own mastery. I’m just pointing out what it will take to be truly Spirit-led, to be truly a servant of the Light, what it will take to be truly grounded. Nor am I saying that all Quakers have to do this. There is a place in Quakerdom for Friends who are not spiritual masters, but bring other vital gifts. Without people gaining their mastery in organizing potlucks, tracking bank accounts, and teaching First Day School, the Society of Friends will never amount to anything much.

But if we depend on corporate discernment of the will of the Holy Spirit, that means we need a lot of people who have mastered listening to the Light—waiting on the Light, as we spend so much of our time doing in expectant worship. If we don’t have enough of those people, then we won’t discern. And if we don’t discern, then we won’t just fail to amount to much—the Society will die.

The death of the Society wouldn’t just affect us. It would weaken the whole world—maybe fatally. Heaven knows the human race will need to hear the Light in the coming years, perhaps more than ever, and if we aren’t there to help out and show the way, what might become of us all?

So we need to be here. And that means we need to put in the time. We need to find the Light far more than weekly. We need to find peace, find the center, and settle into expectant worship daily—hourly.

Some weeks ago, at the Annual Session of North Pacific Yearly Meeting, we found ourselves lost during a plenary business meeting. New committees were piling up, their tasks creeping out, as we tried looking for something that we knew was missing. Dorsey Green stood and said that she felt something was wrong. The words lurched in my heart and I knew what I had to say. I stood shivering in the back row until the clerk called on me, and then I said, “I’ve been hearing about these committees for days, and I haven’t heard anyone mention God.” I said that I had no idea how to deal with the committees and the logistics, but I did have a guess as to how to deal with the deeper problems: “I’d say we need some silence.”

Becca Mulholly-Renk, one of our Friends in Residence, stood after me and said she was an outsider, but that if it were up to her, she’d stop business for the day and have us enter meeting for worship. The clerk began to move on—but Kathy Hyzy wouldn’t let him. She stood up and yelled from the back, loud enough that all could hear even without a mic, “Friends, we are not finished! Paul was right! Becca was right!” And that did the trick. A troubled meeting for business instead became a healing meeting for worship, an outpouring of pent-up fears and feelings. In the end Patty Lyman gave us a message of pure silence, then handed the meeting back to the clerk. We don’t know where NPYM is going to go from here, but the door’s been opened.

It took five of us that day. Where would the yearly meeting be if one of us had not practiced listening to the Spirit? Where would we be if one of us hadn’t had the skill and the courage we needed? I barely had enough for the task, for I am no master. One less hour of worship and perhaps I would have failed.

As I said, this isn’t the path for everyone. You don’t have to be a listener if you don’t want to, and there are other ways to help Friends. But if you do want to, if you do want to live in the life and power, then there’s only one way: spend the time. Put in the hours. It won’t go easily to begin with, because in order to be good at anything you have to be bad at it for a while. That’s the price you have to pay.

And if you haven’t put in your time yet, what’s stopping you? No one but you. Not your job, not your family, not capitalism or the pace of modern life: you. Take your hour a day, or three or four, and you’ll get there.

We Friends don’t really believe that the Light may speak to any of us. We believe that the Light is speaking to all of us, all the time. “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” Fox said, and he meant 100% instruction. So at any given time, it may be our hour to speak. Some of us are more practiced at it than others; all we can do is make ourselves ready.

It’ll take ten thousand hours. And that ten thousand gets no shorter if you wait and delay.

“Put those hours in, and look at what you get:
Nothing that you can hold, but everything that it is.”



2 thoughts on ““Ten Thousand Hours”

  1. Some people seem to have the gift of arriving at deep spiritual insights in far fewer than 10,000 hours. But, for most of us (me included), the 10,000 hour figures looks about right! Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and you for this profound understanding!

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