My 10,000 Hour Journey

After reading Outliers by: Malcolm Gladwell. I finally came up with an idea for my first blog post. While reading Outliers I was amazed thinking about how acts of fate, timing and pure hard word can come together to form a perfect setting for success. One thing in particular struck me, the idea that the ten-thousand-hour rule might be a rule of general success, that people who are successful in many different fields have the commonality of having spent at least ten-thousand hours developing their skills.

EducacionI began to wonder what unique skills or talents I have and what led me to the acquisition of them. I have lived in Mexico City for over fifteen years, originally from North Carolina. Upon hearing how long I have lived in Mexico I am usually greeted by one of two responses, oh, so you are Mexican now, or wow, your Spanish is really good. The later is usually followed by a story of someone else the person knows who has lived in Mexico much longer and still sounds like a “gringo.” I would not say that my accent or command of the language are perfect. My mistakes are eagerly pointed out by my six-year old daughter.  Having said that, I would place myself in the near native-speaker category.

Me speaking Spanish could be considered by some to be unlikely. My great-grandparents are Irish and German. My parents come from Wapakoneta, Ohio, a small town with what I would have to assume to have had a very small Spanish-speaking population in the late 60s.  But that is where my story starts,  the series of events that shaped my language ability.

My father was drafted when everyone seemed to be going to Vietnam. On the day he reported he was assigned to go to the Dominican Republic. Shortly after he was on his way to boot camp at Camp Lejeune and then to another country, whose mother language happened to be Spanish. My father spoke no Spanish and was given a standard order military Spanish-English dictionary. He was enchanted with the country and language and continues to this day, over forty years later, on a quest to learn Spanish.

Fast forward to Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1981. I was in elementary school and my dad gave me his military Spanish-English dictionary and encouraged me to try to learn the words because (he felt)  it could be important for me one day. Around the same time I was accepted into a program at Pine Street Elementary School called P.A.G.E.S. Shortly after my family moved to Winston-Salem, NC and I began to attend Old Town Elementary School. The fact that I had been in the P.A.G.E.S. program in South Carolina made me eligible for the GT program in North Carolina. It just so happened that the program included Spanish classes. I am not sure how common this was in a public school in North Carolina in the early eighties but I loved Spanish, remembered my dad’s words and was eager to learn. I would estimate that I had approximately 300 hours of formal Spanish classes from third through eighth grades.

In middle school my Spanish teacher judged my language ability to be sub-par and suggested that I pick another  subject to study. When my youngest brother was in her class several years later, and I was student teaching, I visited her class as a guest lecturer. By that time I was able to detect that her level of Spanish was not as high as one would hope for a language teacher.

When I entered high school I had the bug for learning a new language and an interest in connecting with students from other countries. I befriended a Mexican exchange student at my school and began to spend time trying to speak Spanish with her, a time that I am sure was painful for her ears.

Eventually she ended up moving in with my family because her host family would not allow her to participate in any normal American high school activities like going to football games, the mall or the movies. At the time my mother had four children from five to thirteen. However, when she heard of Ingrid’s situation, she simply said, “I would never want my daughter to be in another country and not able to do anything, let’s talk to the sponsoring agency.” Shortly after she moved in. We shared a room and would often stay up late at night talking (in Spanish) about teenage things that we didn’t want my parents to know about, which was mainly the boys we were interested in.  I added another couple hundred hours of contact with the Spanish language through those late night sessions.

Ingrid returned to Mexico that summer and I went with her. During the course of high school I spent three summers in Mexico, increasing my Spanish hours by about 1,200. I continued to take Spanish in high school and would compete in speaking competitions, publish a poem in Spanish honoring my grandmother’s death, participate in the Spanish Honor Society, place out of freshman Spanish in college and go on to major in education and Spanish at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Through high school and college classes I racked up another 1,000 hours but this still puts me far away from the minimum 10,000 referred to in Outliers which would set me up to be especially good at a particular task.

After my freshman year I longed for an adventure, a chance to meet new people and I wanted to really improve my language skills. I decided to study abroad for a semester in Mexico. Ingrid’s family had extended an invitation for me to live with them and personally it seemed like a good time. I packed up and moved to Mexico. Over the six months in Mexico I spoke very little English, bringing my total to close to five thousand hours. At age 19 I was well on my way to becoming good at speaking Spanish.

A key moment in that period was a failed attempt to enter a popular nightclub in Mexico City which led to go to a less popular club and running into a friend of a friend who would introduce me to Valdir, my future husband. One of his first questions was, “Why are you here?” I answered, “To learn Spanish.” So despite the fact that he speaks near perfect English, our conversations for the most part over the past nineteen years have been in Spanish. This combined with the fact that he has a kind and gentle way of correcting my language mistakes, gave me the confidence and the perseverance to continually build upon my skills.

After my semester abroad I went back to UNC, took more Spanish classes (another 300 hours), student taught in Spanish for a semester (300 hours), worked for a summer in Mexico (400), and became a bi-lingual service manager for a temporary staffing agency in Winston-Salem 1000 hours). When I had the opportunity to move to Mexico City for a job in 1997 I was about 7000 in to the 10,000 hours. I have been in Mexico since then and over the last 15 years have accumulated well over the additional 3000 hours speaking, reading, listening to and studying Spanish in order to reach the 10,000 hour goal.

The lesson that became clear to me is that ordinary circumstances can set us up to have extraordinary abilities in some areas of our life. However, they do not come without a willingness to work hard, stand up to those who discourage us, and to keep learning and growing well past the ten thousand hour mark. I would wager that behind almost everyones’ extraordinary talent, lies at least 10,000 hours of hard work, dedication and sacrifice.

The implications for teaching and parenting are quite powerful. The small choices and decisions we make can change the course of our children’s/students’ lives. If more parents and teachers were able to identify interests and, guide students in the understanding that it is not just luck or an innate ability that leads to success we could create a society of people who are doing what fulfills them. We need to stop labeling kids and give the permission to spend real time working on what interests them. We must find ways to honor and support their passions and while teaching the value of perseverance.

How could sharing a favorite book, accepting a stranger into your home, or simply honoring someone’s desire to learn despite raw talent contribute in a small or great way to someone’s ten-thousand hours?

Tell me what you are good at and I’ll tell you what you have spent ten-thousand hours doing.  If we ask our students what they are good at or observe what drives our children we can find opportunities for them to work on their ten-thousand-hours, and when preparation meets opportunity they will be successful.


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