At least two creativity theorists (Csikszentmahalyi & Piirto) argue that creativity (with a big “C”) relies upon a certain degree of mastery over a domain in order for a creator to be successful. Mastery is also needed, they claim, for creative products to be widely accepted and recognized by others, especially critics. In other words, one thing that may define people with a consistently high level of creative performance is the degree of expertise in a specific domain or discipline that has taken place over time, as well as practice and experience. Piirto calls this the “10 year rule.” “Any person,” she claims, “must have been working in a domain for a minimum of 10 years in order to achieve international recognition” (15).
In this essay, the 10-year rule will be introduced using arguments presented by Jane Piirto and Mihaly Csikszentmahalyi. One of the primary criticisms of the 10-year role - namely the spontaneous nature of creativity – will also be addressed. Finally, two personal examples will be used to support the 10-year rule.
We’ve all heard performance artists say how much they studied music and practiced with an instrument like the guitar before they were able to play more advanced classical pieces and develop their own unique style. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the adage goes. “Practice, practice, practice!”
Support for the 10-year rule may be found in the expertise (or eminence) hypothesis presented by Piirto that “every field and domain of knowledge in which creativity can be demonstrated has novice levels, apprenticeship levels, expert levels, and special jargons” (15). Nonetheless, exploration of the levels of creativity (i.e., novice, apprenticeship, expert) has largely evaded theorists. Morever, little has been written about the relationship of the expert with his or her master teacher along the continuum of creativity levels. In short, what role does a master teacher plays in producing creative genius and progressing from novice to expert? What is it that allows for mastery to take place? One explanation, says Piirto, is that “master coaches and teachers have codified the knowledge necessary for mastering the domain” (15). In essence, they are the key holders to the secret code.
Confirmation for the 10-year rule also appears in the work of Csikszentmihalyi, specifically regarding the ‘incubation’ phase of creativity. He argues that it is impossible “for a person who has not mastered a domain or been involved in a field” (102) to take full advantage of the incubation phase. He implies that a certain amount of the patterns, knowledge and rules of a field like physics must be ‘internalized’ before deeper incubation can occur or creative, scientific breakthroughs be made. In other words, a discoverer must be familiar with a discipline for deeper creative solutions to emerge.
Criticisms may come from people who say that everyone is creative (with a small “c”); unfortunately, this is beyond the scope of this essay. Criticisms may also come from those who associate creativity with spontaneous, free flowing improvisations. There are few rules for creativity, they claim. This is indeed a valid argument. However, even with improvisational genius, some degree of expertise and rule-following is required as a foundation beyond “practice, practice, practice.”
Performers who rely on a large amount of apparent spontaneity (i.e., orators and comedians, for example) actually do follow rules of impeccable timing and use expertise in voice modulation and intentional pausing, amongst other personal skills many that are not apparent to the novice (I would say here I’m at the ‘apprentice’ level). For example, one of the greatest public speakers that I’ve ever heard is Dr. Jean Houston. She employs a great deal of spontaneity and humor along with wildly evocative and energizing lexicon (i.e., universal self, core tapping, pollination, social artistry, passion for the possible, lure of becoming) launched with such delicacy and impeccable timing. She relies on her extensive expertise in hypnosis, theater, group dynamics, and comedy (her father was a comedy writer for Bob Hope and the creator of the famous “Who’s On First?” skit). She is also one of the most widely-read people I know. One of the foundations for her speaking is a scripted text that represents countless hours of research and analysis (also her genius) of a wide range of subjects, from the new field of social artistry to spiral dynamics to ancient mystery school practices. She once told me that in 20 years she compiled over 200 unpublished 400-page manuscripts on the shelves that she has used as scripts for her presentations. These may not be apparent on the surface to a novice but they represent many decades of practice and experience.
Personally, there are two examples of the 10-year rule that I can apply to my life personally and professionally. The first happened during high school. I received a great deal of public recognition after I gained performance mastery in the sport of football. I received many accolades (i.e., all-state running back, school and state (Michigan) records-setter, and Hall of Fame athlete) as a result of my performance during my senior (12th) year. Although I had been playing organized football for only five years, I had watched a lot of football on TV previously. I also participated in pick-up games and organized sports like baseball and basketball with neighbors for more than five years. My experience and practice in football totaled more than 10 years.
To support the role of master teachers presented earlier, I would like to appreciate my high school football coach, Fred Pessell, for challenging me in middle school to be a better running back than Ralph Ryan, a classmate. That challenge ignited a competitive drive for me to move forward. I got involved in school-supported football at that point (8th grade). Two years later, Coach Pessell elevated me to the varsity team as a sophomore to challenge me even more and bring my fledgling skills to a higher level. Finally, it was Coach Pessell’s adaptation of the Ohio State Buckeye’s power-I offense that created a structure through which my talent flourished and shined.
Finally, the second example of the 10-year rule happened to me professionally. Starting in 1988, I wrote (and management) 48 out of 52 successful grant proposals (92+% success rate). To contribute to the field and challenge myself, I created a 10-credit college grant writing certification program. I basically documented “what works” in grant writing and began teaching others what I knew. I wrote a masters thesis on the “Metaphysics of Successful Grant Writing” which I turned into a teaching/learning book on grant writing. My students have since gone on to generate over $1.2 billion in funding in 2.5 years. Now, I am exploring “best practices” in fundraising and endowment campaigns as part of my Ph.D. This area is easy for me, I’m confident speaking and writing, and my contributions are almost immediately well-received largely because I enjoy grant writing/management and teaching experience of more than 12 years.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Piirto, J. (2004). Understanding creativity. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.