10,000 Hour Rule

While not specific to animation, the concept of the 10,000 hour rule certainly makes its way through the community, from students, masters, and everyone in between. It’s a perpetual topic for creatives.

The rule, popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell (my high school art teacher used to read to us from Blink while we mediated…), argues that it takes 10,000 hours for someone to achieve mastery over a particular skill or subject. It’s also often referred to as the ’10 year rule.’ Like any sort of vague creative rule of thumb, there’s plenty of writing both condemning and condoning the idea, and generally its interpretation is simplified and/or misinterpreted to the point of being incorrect.

At the same time, I think with a bit of aforementioned context, it’s still a great jumping off point to discuss bettering oneself.

10,000 Drawings

There is a popular quote in the animation industry that certainly runs adjacent to this sentiment.

We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.

Walt Stanchfield

Walt Stanchfield is most famous for his time as a Disney animator, teaching others. He, along with Eric Larson were responsible for creating the training program at the studios in the 70s that brought up many of the artists who went on to play pivotal roles at Pixar and Disney during the 90s. For the longest time, the bulk of Stanchfield’s lectures were passed around as photocopies, but later were bundled into two published volumes, Drawn to Life Volumes 1 and Volume 2, that have become staples of any animation student’s library.

The same mix of condemning and condoning apply here as well. But let’s take what we need from this concept, ok?

The Deciding Factor

It all boils down to intent.

Now, the actual ten thousand hours of practice spread (most realistically) over ten years is a rough average of course, not meant for everyone and every situation. I don’t think it was ever intended to, to be clear.

And intent–the most important factor of this–tends to get lost in conversations. Its core stresses quality time over quantity of time–not just more time on task, but better time on task. Experts may not log any more hours than you, but they practice differently than your average person, doing what cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she cites the original researcher, Ericsson, who, as she put it “is the world expert on world experts.”

From Duckworth’s book:

First, they set a stretch goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Rather than focus on what they already do well, experts strive to improve specific weaknesses. They intentionally seek out challenges they can’t yet meet…Virtuoso violinist Roberto Diaz describes “working to find your Achilles’ heel–the specific aspect of the music that needs problem solving.” Then, with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal.

Intent is arguably more important, or at least, could undermine any well-intended but mild effort.

I try to stress to my students the importance of active practice over passive practice. That an hour of focused daily practice will put you miles ahead of a few hours of passive, mindless work, say, throwing a movie on in the background and working while watching that. Now, to be clear, I’m not opposed to having music or something on in the background, but you need to be honest with yourself about how well you personally focus or are distracted by external things like that and your phone. I’ve definitely seen professional artists work with ample distractions around them and still get quality work out, and I’d argue that’s because they’re actually ‘masters’ of their craft or are well on their way. But if you’re still a student in the academic sense (because we’re all students forever, right?), you’re at the very start of your journey. It’s especially important to get started on the right foot.

I’ve heard stories of artists who recognized a certain aspect was a weakness of theirs, like drawing hands or cars, and focusing on that and excelling in that particular area. I remember attending a talk with animator Aya Suzuki years ago and her mentioning having to pass on an opportunity to work on the rebooted Neon Genesis Evangelion films because she’d had limited experience with more mechanical and hard surface designs, and city elements. Looking at her body of work, it’s clear that she opted to focus on more organic elements and character animation, and mastered this area.

Active Vs Passive

What exactly does that look like?

Have you ever read a book or an article and found that you couldn’t recall any of the information you just read? Maybe you got to the end of a paragraph and realized you hadn’t actually read it–you just went through the motions of reading it. But you weren’t actually engaging with and retaining the text.

Or what about watching a film while scrolling on social media? Are you really actively engaged with either screen if your brain is divided between them? In this world of hustle culture and constantly optimizing and hacking our productivity, I can understand where this might seem more beneficial. But in the long run, you’re better off giving each task and skill you want to learn your undivided attention.

Deliberate Practice

It’s about knowing what areas you do want to delve into. As I quoted earlier, it’s about knowing the weaknesses you want to improve.

Ten thousand drawings aren’t helpful if half of them were mindlessly done, if you aren’t learning from each one and cumulatively bringing that knowledge and experience into the next one.

If you’re trying to do this as a career, or just anything beyond a fun hobby, I encourage you to try to be deliberate in your art practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect–perfect practice makes perfect. ‘Perfect’ here is relative and a bit hyperbolic of course, so don’t fixate on that as much as recognizing how you practice is way more important than what we give it credit for.