Talent? Forget It; Focus on Practice

Yesterday, I was feeling a little down. I’m retooling a short story, and all I could hear was my internal critic trashing it. So I was primed for a bunch of articles about talent versus practice. These articles kicked me in the butt and got me working again. It’s funny, though. I didn’t expect a story about Rome to start me down the butt-kicking path.

Yesterday, Wired posted a great article about James Erwin. You may not have heard of him yet, but chances are, you soon will. It looks like Erwin may be one of the next people to jump from internet famous to famous-famous. Erwin’s story began on the website Reddit.com. If you are not familiar, Reddit allows users (Redditors) to vote posts up or down, so the most popular things rise to the top. Often, these are funny pictures, silly videos, or random questions. One day, a Redditor posted the question, “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit]?” This question proved very popular (eventually becoming a subreddit Rome Sweet Rome), and it caught Erwin’s attention. As an aside, I will say I was lurking in that thread, and watching it unfold was as exciting as Wired would have you believe. The idea of Marines taking on Rome was a fun idea to play with.

Erwin started posting snippets of a response in story form, and then he got a lot of attention. From the Wired article:

Within an hour, he was an online celebrity. Within three hours, a film producer had reached out to him. Within two weeks, he was offered a deal to write a movie based on his Reddit comments. Within two months, he had taken a leave from his job to become a full-time Hollywood screenwriter.

Erwin just so happened to be a writer and a historian, both of fallen empires and U.S. military history. He was in a great position to write about Marines fighting Rome. But before you write it off as Erwin just being in the right place at the right time, read the Wired article.

You see, Erwin was able to produce quality text very quickly only because he had put in a ton of practice. He had created a website, Footnotes to History, an “atlas of strange and tiny nations.” “In 2006 he published Declarations of Independence, a comprehensive account of American secessionist movements, from the Cherokee Nation to the Artists’ Republic of Fremont.” And “in 2009 he [began writing the] Encyclopedia of U.S. Military Actions…an exhaustive [two-volume] description of every single American war, quasi war, occupation, landing, and expedition.” Not only that, but every one of Erwin’s previous posts on Reddit had been instantly critiqued and voted on. To get attention, he would have to be good. Erwin had spent years practicing, developing his ability to write quickly and well. And it’s the result of that practice that caught the agent’s eye: “I knew it was something special, because it wasn’t like he took three months to do this. This was quick quick quick, and it was all good.”

I’ve posted before about keeping your butt in the chair, but Erwin’s story caught my eye because I didn’t know about his past. You see, when it comes to writing, it’s not about talent. It’s about practice. Can you keep writing, keep submitting, and keep going despite the criticism and rejection? Can you do it for years? Because the evidence is mounting that this is exactly what it takes. Forget talent; focus on practice.

But it’s not just me or Malcolm Gladwell saying you need to put in thousands of hours. Scientific studies are also saying focus on practice, not talent. Check out this post on Myke Cole’s blog:

What he did find was a ton of statistically significant data that supported the idea that focused practice/training could result in expertise. ‘I won’t say that there’s no such thing as talent,’ he said, ‘but I will say that it’s irrelevant.

It’s not about having a natural talent for writing. It’s about whether you can keep working. It’s about overcoming excuses and keeping your butt in the chair. Looks like I need to may need to re-read Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART for further butt-kicking. As soon as I hit my daily wordcount quota, of course.

Good luck, everyone. No, wait. Just keep writing.