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February 12, 2013 9:11 am
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Isaac Stern and the 10,000 Hours Rule

avatar by Erica Brown / JNS.org

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A post-concert photo of the main hall's stage inside of Carnegie Hall. Photo: Wikipedia.

Legend has it that famed violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001) was once confronted after a concert by an admirer who said the following to him: “O, Mr. Stern, I would give anything to be able to play the violin as magnificently as you do.” Stern’s answer: “Would you give 12 hours a day?” He probably wasn’t exaggerating.

Stern was born in Poland but moved to the United States with his family before he was two years old. By 15 he had his debut as a violinist and spent decades traveling the world with his music. In his lifetime, he discovered and nurtured talent, bringing to the public eye the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others. He first played in Israel one year after the founding of the Jewish state and maintained a close relationship with Israel, visiting and playing during wartime.

An obituary in the Los Angeles Times records the moment when Stern’s performance was interrupted during an air raid siren in Israel. To calm the audience, he played a piece of Bach; the audience put on their gas masks and watched the rest of the performance.

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Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium is named after Stern, and it’s not hard to understand why. The talent Stern exhibited in his youth was honed and developed over a lifetime of playing and discovering the talents of others. Maimonides, citing the Talmud writes, “According to the effort is the gain.” And it reminds me of a Talmudic debate that also involves 12 hours. The sages believed that study demands rigor: hours, discipline and self-sacrifice. They believed the life of scholarship was earned without luxury; to acquire wisdom meant sleeping on the floor and eating bread dipped in salt. This wasn’t a prescription for knowledge. It was a warning against those who believed that study would bring them material success and status.

Study alone would not support a family so one of the debates around Jewish scholarship was how much time should be given to learning Torah in contrast to earning a living. One formula favored in the Talmud is a 3/9 ratio: three hours of work (often manual labor) and nine hours of learning. We wonder how this worked in reality, but then again this is the Talmudic equivalent of Isaac Stern in the scholarship department. You can’t create great scholars unless there is real investment in both the process of study, the skills and competencies that are necessary and the commitment to mastery. Being a lifelong learner is all about sequentially preparing ourselves to make study more nuanced, textured and challenging across the lifespan.

The 10,000 hours rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book, Outliers. Gladwell used research that suggested that mastery in any field depends on spending at least 10,000 hours perfecting one’s skills and competencies. Others, like Geoffrey Colvin in Talent is Overrated, write about the importance of deliberative practice. It’s not only about how many hours you put in but about customized practice that helps you improve on your specific areas of weakness. One of the great tests of talent is one’s willingness to practice what one is not good at and willingness to practice alone.

Sometimes we want outcomes without effort, but current research suggests what our sages knew 2,000 years ago. It takes 12 hours a day, 10,000 hours a life and mental and physical drive to achieve excellence. What would you like to be great at and are you willing to put in the hours?

Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

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