Isaac Stern and the 10,000 Hours Rule

February 12, 2013 9:11 am 0 comments

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.

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.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Blogs 10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    10 New Hollywood Movies That Aim to Show Support for Israel (SATIRE)

    Ten major film studios are currently in production on projects that promote a decidedly pro-Israeli narrative. In famously liberal Hollywood, such a development has left mouths agape and set tongues a wagging. Since the Jewish State began defending itself from the thousands of rockets that Hamas has hurled at it – as well as ongoing terror attacks and murders, the overwhelming number of Tinseltown’s producers, directors, actors, and studio moguls have remained indifferent to the plight of millions of Israeli [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Sports So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    So Close: Israeli Judoka Loses Crown in World Cup Final, Finishes With Silver (VIDEO)

    Israeli Judoka Yarden Gerbi (63kg), 25, of Netanya, on Thursday lost the final round at the Judo World Cup, and her world title to Clarisse Agbegnenou of France, at a match held in Russia. “I have mixed feelings,” Gerbi told Israeli Army radio. But, “I shouldn’t assume that I’d win the world Judo championship twice in a row,” she admitted. Gerbi won gold in Rio De Janeiro last year. “When I made my decision, I knew it was going to [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    Surviving the Holocaust by Hiding Their Faith (REVIEW)

    “Jews Out!” was just the name of a child’s game that three little girls played in World War II Europe. But all is not as it seems because the three girls were Jewish, but hiding their true identities. In award-winning author R. D. Rosen’s riveting non-fiction work, Such Good Girls, “Jews Out!” wasn’t a game; it was a struggle for survival. The girls, Sophie, Flora, and Carla, grew up at a time and a place that did not allow them [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    Twenty Years On, the Real and Radical Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

    JNS.org – “He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age,” wrote Elli Wohlgelernter in a Jerusalem Post eulogy in 1994, following the Oct. 20 passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Twenty years later, more robust accounts of Carlebach’s life have come to the surface. Earlier this year, Natan Ophir published the book Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission & Legacy. This past summer, Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s The Soul of Jerusalem hit the shelves. But even the authors will admit [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    Beatlemania Invades the Gaza Strip (SATIRE)

    As Hamas loses its grip on power in the Gaza Strip as a result of war, poverty and disillusionment, the Islamist terrorist group has developed an ingenious way to raise the moral of the 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs it was elected to serve. While currently focused on delivering a rocket into every Israeli home, Hamas has not left its own people behind. To gently wipe away the tears of children strategically placed inside kindergartens as human shields, the Hamas Interior Ministry has [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Recycling His Roots

    Recycling His Roots

    JNS.org – Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world. After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    JNS.org – Sara Davidson’s The December Project is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives? Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.