In late 1921, a young Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, took off and moved to Paris.
They settled into a tiny apartment with no running water, and Hemingway rented another small room nearby where he could focus on his writing. It wasn’t glamorous, but it worked.
Over the next few years, the legendary writer worked as a reporter and covered everything from the Greco-Turkish war to nature sports to the social scene in Europe. Along the way, he met and forged relationships with some of the most influential artists and authors of his day.
A friend from the US had made a few introductions, and in those early years, the Hemingways got to know the likes of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and even Pablo Picasso. A few years later, he would also meet F. Scott Fitzgerald.
There is no doubt that the decade he spent in Paris was instrumental in making him the writer we know today. Not only were the relationships he built crucial to getting noticed, but the experiences that he had also gave him the subjects for some of his most noted work.
In spite of that, his legacy as arguably the most influential writer of the past 100 years isn’t a coincidence. Hemingway had an obsession. He gave his life to his craft, and he honed it with years and years of careful, unwavering, and committed dedication.
Over the past few decades, there has been a library of research done on elite performers to understand how they become masters of their craft. Hemingway’s story provides some complementary insight into the role of deliberate practice and how he harnessed it by:
• Being willing to put in the work we don’t see
• Fighting mindlessness with systemic boundaries
• Realizing that feedback in the only real shortcut
Environment and genetic potential partially influence mastery, but practice is non-negotiable.
Be Willing to Put in the Work We Don’t See
When The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926, it was an instant hit. It was Hemingway’s first real novel, and it is still considered his most influential and important work.
In a review later that year, The New York Times wrote the following:
“No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.”1
Soon after, in 1929, Hemingway wrote about his wartime experiences in A Farewell to Arms. Everything changed. From there on, he wasn’t just any writer. In a few short years, he had gone from being virtually unknown to becoming the most famous author of his generation.
That’s the work we see. It’s good and popular, and the story is romantic. But there is more.
In the past few decades, the 10,000-hour rule, as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, has made it into popular culture. It’s based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson who is the leading authority on deliberate practice and how it influences peak performance and results.
Although putting in 10,000 hours alone won’t inspire great ability, there is a core reality here that needs acknowledgment. You have to do a lot of work in order to create great work.
In specialized fields, there is no way around the unforgiving, silent, and forgotten hours.
When it comes to Hemingway, there is a decade of work that we don’t see. We don’t see him as a kid in high school writing for a newspaper. We don’t see him struggling for years to get words on paper in the right way as a journalist before attempting to write his first novel.
In order to produce work that the world does see, you have to first be willing to produce the work that the world doesn’t see. Persistence through the ugly isn’t optional. It’s necessary.
Fight Mindlessness With Systemic Boundaries
One of the problems with the popularization of the 10,000-hour rule is that, as it spread, it made a promise that didn’t completely account for the whole story. It’s partially incomplete.
There is far more to practice than just commitment. That’s just a prerequisite, and the 10,000 hours is simply an observation. There is a reason that researchers like Ericsson are intent on adding the word “deliberate” before practice. That’s where most of the magic happens.2
Humans are habit-forming creatures. It’s how we lessen the cognitive load on our brain. After a while of repetition, we automate what we can so we can optimally conserve energy.
For example, when we first learn to use a keyboard, most of us are slow and very deliberate about the keys we press. As time goes on, however, it tends to become more automatic.
This is how we initially improve. We get better with repetition. That said, there is a point at which repetition provides diminishing returns once it’s automated. There is probably a big skill gap between the first time you used a keyboard and the hundredth, but there is likely almost no difference between the thousandth time and the tenth thousandth time you did so.
Mindless repetition is unproductive. For practice to bear fruit, it needs undivided attention. It requires a surrounding system that ensures that it is purposeful and deliberately directed.
In an article in Esquire in 1935, Hemingway gave the following advice to a young writer:
“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”3
He was deliberate in following this advice himself. He wrote when his imagination was active and he preferred to walk away early rather than to exhaust his effort producing aimlessly.
We don’t get better by doing the same thing one way. We get better by pushing boundaries.
Realize That Feedback is the Only Shortcut
The key to designing a system that fights off mindlessness is regular and targeted feedback.
In 1985, a professor at the University of Chicago, Benjamin Bloom, published Developing Talent in Young People. It is an analysis of 120 elite young performers in a variety of fields, and it inspired much of the subsequent research that has been done on peak performance.
He found no evidence of the link between IQ and expert performance across chess, music, and sports. What he did find, however, was that these kids had practiced intensely. Perhaps even more importantly, they had all had coaches and teachers to guide their practice.
Feedback is the difference between a person who puts in 10,000 hours and gets nowhere relative to their effort, and the person who rises to the top of their field after only 5,000 hours.
Although Hemingway would deny it in his later years due to a feud, one of the most important influences in his career was Gertrude Stein. She was a well-known art collector and writer living as an expatriate in Paris when the 22-year-old Hemingway arrived.
Not only did she help him make his writing cleaner and better, but she also introduced him to many other writers of his generation who would go on to significantly influence his work.
This kind of direction is almost necessary for deliberate practice to be effective, but it doesn’t always have to be in the form of a coach. Unless you are striving at an elite level, you can build your own systems that allow you to self-correct. Recording and measuring is an easy one.
Hemingway, for example, was also very adamant on rereading what he had already written before starting a new session. He would often start from the beginning, or at least cover the last two or three chapters, and he would correct as he went along with a fresh perspective.
If there is any single shortcut to improvement and mastery, it’s quick and effective feedback.
All You Need to Know
In spite of the power of deliberate practice, there are of course limitations. Our genes matter and our environment matters. Practice can’t make everyone a professional basketball player.
That said, it can do a lot more than most people give it credit for. If approached the right way, deliberate practice allows us to reap the rewards that talent alone will never be able to touch. Hemingway was a master of the art, and before we had the research we do now, he lived it.
There are three key things to keep in mind from his story:
I. You have to be willing to produce work that the world doesn’t see. The often-quoted 10,000-hour rule may be incomplete, but the jist of it stands. Before Hemingway become an “overnight success” in the late 1920s, he spent almost a decade writing and producing work that nobody ever talks about. The silent years aren’t optional.
II. Mindlessness is unproductive. It’s important to note that these silent years aren’t a magic bullet in themselves either. They’re a prerequisite. Beyond that, it’s also critical to note that practice has to be focused. It can’t be automated, and it has to push us in new ways. Doing the same thing in the same way, over and over again, provides returns that eventually diminish. Systematically pushing boundaries is the difference.
III. The best way to design systems that fight mindlessness is through targeted feedback. For an elite performer, this often comes through coaches and trainers, but something as simple as recording and measuring performance or being proactive in looking for blind-spots works, too. Self-correction is the only shortcut to mastery.
We can’t all become anything that we want, but no matter what our age or situation, we do have a degree of control over what we get good at. That’s the magic of deliberate practice.
Most things are more accessible than we think. It’s the execution and sacrifice that’s tough.
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