Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Food Spirituality/Tradition ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah

    ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah – Babka. Strudel. Stollen. Danish pastry. Not to mention Gugelhopf and Charlotte. The names set the mouth to watering and conjure up lovingly concocted pastries that feed the body and comfort the soul. If you didn’t have a grandmother who baked these delicacies, you wish that you had. George Greenstein was never a grandmother, but his life as a baker provided his children and grandchildren with memories infused with the smell of fresh baked bread and rugelach. His daughters, Julia […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’

    Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’ – There is a game that all of us have played at some time in our lives. We ask ourselves: What would my life be like if I had gone to this school instead of that one, or if I had married this girl instead of that one? In their newly published book The Ambassador, authors Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees play that game with modern Jewish history. Avner — who died earlier this year, and was a speechwriter, secretary and adviser to […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Lifestyle A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A unique group of young fashion bloggers and designers recently visited Israel to learn more about the country’s fashion industry and diverse culture. Hailing from the Philippines, Korea, Kenya, Japan, Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K., the 10 participants toured the country and met with top Israeli fashion designers throughout last week. “It was an amazing experience,” said Meissene Maghni from Toulouse, France — one of the participants of the program. “I’m Muslim and I really wanted to see Israel […]

    Read more →