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You Can't Hurry Greatness

The careers of America's best songwriters suggest great art is the product of years of immersion in one's chosen field.
Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner. (Photo: Entertainment One)

Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner. (Photo: Entertainment One)

The concept of genius, be it in the artistic or scientific realm, continues to fascinate, thanks to its rarity and the uncertain nature of how it arises.

Popular films such as Amadeus and A Beautiful Mind popularized the idea that the unique abilities of Mozart, or the recently deceased mathematician John Nash, were innate, inexplicable gifts, delivered directly from God and effectively transcribed rather than sweated over. Earlier this year, Mr. Turner took a very different approach, portraying how a painter who grew artistically over the course of his career did his most important work toward the end of his life.

In 1990, psychologist John Hayes proposed the "10-year rule," arguing that even someone with enormous creative potential needs to spend a decade working on his or her craft before producing work of lasting merit. (He found this even applied to Mozart, who started composing in his pre-teen years and was already extremely experienced by the time we meet him in the rather misleading movie.)

"Peak performance was attained late in the careers of all five composers, and after a prolonged period of gradual increase in song quality."

In a newly published paper, psychologists Richard Hass of Philadelphia University and Robert Weisberg of Temple University re-evaluate this rule by looking at the careers of some of America's most enduringly popular artists—five composers from the Great American Songbook era.

They find that while 10 years is too rigid a number—there is simply too much variation from career to career—their work confirms Hayes' fundamental claim that "high-quality creative products emerge only after a long period of immersion within the field."

The songs of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers that we are still playing and being enjoyed today are, almost exclusively, those composed well into their maturity.

Hass and Weisberg used a dataset of 2,575 songs written by the five composers, noting the "career age" at which each was written (that is, the number of years after the creator first started writing songs). They also examined the length of the Broadway run of the show where the song originally appeared (a good indicator of its immediate popularity), and the number of cover versions that have been recorded by other artists (a good indicator of its enduring appeal).

Looking specifically at the number of albums on which a given song appeared, they created a "hit ratio," representing "the proportion of songs per active year that achieved hit status."

Adding it all up, they found "peak performance was attained late in the careers of all five composers, and after a prolonged period of gradual increase in song quality." For example, Berlin reached his peak year a full 27 years after he started, "after he had published nearly 375 songs."

"Gershwin's peak hit ratio came in Year 18, after publishing 262 songs," they add. "Gershwin's death occurred in Year 22 (1937), which featured (his) third-highest hit ratio."

"All five composers included in the analysis showed gains in song quality across the first 10 to 20 years of their careers," Hass and Weisberg conclude. "This is evidence that the creative learning process extends into professional life, (and) that learning is important even in the cases of so-called geniuses."

The results suggest "it might be useful to drop the 10-year rule and adopt something like 'long-term immersion in a discipline,'" the researchers add. "The 10-year rule implies more uniformity than is found when one examines detailed results across individuals."

So if you're plugging away at your art, or haven't quite made that scientific breakthrough you feel is close, don't give up. Time and discipline won't guarantee success—Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hours-of-practice rule has been effectively debunked—but they do seem to be an essential precursor to creating genuinely important work.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.