Last month, I taught my friend Thomas how to skate-ski, which is a Nordic form that requires three basic techniques: one for climbing hills, one for accelerating on the flats, and one for in-between.
At first, Thomas did nothing but slip and fall—skate skis are skinnier than their downhill cousins, and the skier’s heel is free—but after I showed him proper body position and explained about weight shift and timing, and he practiced for about ninety minutes, he was roughly competent at the in-between and hill-climbing techniques. After two more lessons, he could do it all fairly well. As a matter of fact, he had done far better than I would ever have expected.
After daily practice, morning and afternoon for several weeks, Thomas entered a race on the local circuit and came in second, ahead of many more seasoned skiers. Even though he had been a good Alpine skier, I was surprised at how quickly he honed his brand new set of skills, and I wondered whether his rapid success was a result of his natural talent, my brilliant teaching, or something else.
In OUTLIERS, Malcolm Gladwell challenges the idea that success is a result of natural talent. In his stories of people who did certain things really well, Gladwell traces success to practice, timing, circumstances, upbringing, culture, and opportunity. Those really smart, successful people we admire—Mozart, Bill Gates, the Beatles—weren’t destined for great achievements from birth. They were mainly lucky—they had the right upbringing; they were in all the right places at the right times; and through the magic 10,000 hours of practice and a few lucky opportunities they turned out to be geniuses.
After watching Thomas develop as a skate-skier and thinking about OUTLIERS, I began to wonder about myself.
I didn’t start writing fiction until my early forties, but I was always a voracious reader. I also loved to tell stories. In my family, you had to know how to recount things in an interesting way if you wanted to be listened to. I always shone and was rewarded with a lot of attention.
I did pretty well as a trial lawyer, and I think it was mainly because of my ability to weave the evidence into a compelling tale. I structured my opening statements and closing arguments like the plots of books I’d read, so even though I wasn’t writing fiction (some defense attorneys would disagree), I was honing my story-telling skills.
When I retired from law, I had plenty of time free to do a lot of writing. I was also lucky that mystery writers (a kind and generous bunch) were always willing to give me advice, blurb my books, and invite me to contribute stories to anthologies they were editing.
And, yes, I was committed. My experience in school and sports gave me the sense that I could master anything I set my mind to. (Sure, I was often wrong, but I never went in thinking that falling short was an option.) Not thinking failure is a real possibility gives me a lot of confidence and determination—and willingness to put in the hours. I can’t say whether it’s taken 10,000 or something short of that, but I wanted to be a writer, and I never stopped working at it.
My grandmother used to say I was a born story-teller (she believed it was the Irish in me), but I think it was more that in my family I was encouraged to tell stories and rewarded when I did. It’s because I gained confidence from that support, early success, and positive feedback that I had the determination to keep working hard when my first efforts at writing were like Thomas’s first efforts on skate skis.
We’re born with certain abilities, but the conditions of our lives have a lot to do with how well we develop them. There’s no set formula. In my life, commitment, positive feedback, and help from other people have been very important. So in the spirit of the season, to all those who’ve given me so much: THANK YOU.
I am finishing up the first draft of my work in progress, a standalone suspense novel set in Santa Fe and featuring a corporate spy.