Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis are coming to Spring Fling this year. Maybe you haven’t heard because you’ve been living in the Branford Bigloo for the past week. While everyone else is excited about popping tags and wearing their grandpa’s coat, one of my favorite songs off the duo’s debut album is “Ten Thousand Hours.” The title comes from the “10,000-Hour Rule” described by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book “Outliers.” I’ll admit I haven’t had a chance to read Gladwell’s book, but the 10,000-Hour Rule is popular knowledge by now: The key to becoming an expert at a particular task is practicing it for 10,000 hours. Or put it Macklemore’s way: “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint/ The greats were great cause they’d paint a lot.”
How does this all relate to sports? Because 10,000 hours is a really long time, and every athlete playing today at the college level has surely put 10,000 hours into their sport of choice. That’s commitment. Yale students have plenty of 10,000-hour skills — the campus is stuffed with musicians, painters, dancers — but I want to focus on the time committed by athletes. We’ve all heard the overwrought clichés about athletes persevering in the face of adversity and overcoming great obstacles in their path to success. But what about simply discussing the amount of time they put in?
The point is especially valid when you consider that Yale athletes are also full-time Yale students. On top of classes and work, they’re practicing three or four hours a day and often spend the weekend on the road as well. That’s not to say that other Yalies aren’t putting three or four hours a day into their craft, but shouldn’t that show that athletes aren’t that different from everyone else? They’re here because they’re talented, and they’re talented because they’ve put the time in. That doesn’t ring as well as what Macklemore told us above, but it applies to every talent here at Yale.
Spending 10,000 hours working at the same thing must also mean that athletes love what they do. And it takes a special kind of commitment and patience to stick with it. What did I spend 10,000 hours doing as a child? Playing video games? Committing the entire Tokyo subway map to memory? Watching every episode of “Full House”? (Those weren’t jokes.) I did do better than a 980 on my SATs, but I didn’t spend 10,000 hours working at that, either.
I “attempted” to join the cross-country team in high school as a freshman. My friends were on the team, and it seemed like a worthwhile activity. I was hopeless at “ball” sports, but maybe I could run fast for a few miles. I started going to practice during January conditioning before the long-distance track season revved up, and winter in Cincinnati was not unlike what we’re seeing outside in New Haven today. The sidewalks were clogged with snow, freezing rain seared my skin and vehicles were a constant annoyance. One unfortunate day ended with me covered in two coats of bus splashback, ice in my shoes and numbness in my hands. But I stuck with it, right? Cue the uplifting chorus: “10,000 hours felt like 10,000 hands/ 10,000 hands, they carry me.”
Nope. It was too cold and my knees hurt and it wasn’t fun and I quit. How much time did I put into this failed endeavor? Couldn’t have been more than 100 hours over two months.
That’s why I have a lot of respect for the time that athletes (and everyone else at Yale) have put into the activity they love. At some point starting out, I’m sure there was the urge to quit, to stop, to give up. Expertise looked unattainable, and the disutility of the moment seemed to outweigh the possible future rewards. For many people, the path will quickly come to an end. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — it may take a lot of searching to find it, but eventually we find something we love. There are 10,000 failures to launch for every success, and those successes are the people on the court or on the field every day here at Yale. “Put those hours in and look at what you get/ Nothing that you can hold, but everything that it is. Ten thousand hours.”