The Gladwell Effect / a short story

  1. They learn so quick.

“It’s that Gladwell proposal, isn’t it?” she said, rocking the baby in her arms.

“What – what is?” he looked at her over his sunglasses.

“Ten thousand hours to ‘get it’” she stroked the plump cheek as the baby snuggled closer.

“I don’t ‘get it’!” He lowered the paper, folded it and placed it on the table. He took a sip of water. Sun poured from the sky and they had sought refuge under the timber canopy that jutted above them.

“It takes ten thousand hours to learn how to do something sufficiently, to be good, accomplished. Like a violinist. Those kids that practice and practice.” She blew up her fringe as the day’s heat tried to stick it to her head.

“OK. I get that. But what do you mean?” he took off the sunglasses and placed them beside the paper. Carefully, he leaned over his wife’s arms and stroked his daughter’s pink arm. He felt his internal organs soften, melt.

“Her. I mean.” His wife nodded down to their precious child. “If it takes an average of ten thousand hours to be accomplished – that’s what babies do. They learn so quick and we go: Wow! How do they do it? Absorb everything so quick, from nothing.”

“Yes, but it’s the design. Biology, evolution, survival. As soon as they start developing – cells are growing, nerves, receptors, connectors, processors… oh. Ooh! Look.” The baby blew a bubble. They cooed and beamed and their insides turned to cotton-wool clouds. Above the sky was bone-dry.

He continued: “After the immediate rush of growth, it stops. Reversal. Age, deterioration. Brain cells dying. Do you know how much of your brain has gone?” He sat back, arms folded, eyebrows rising as a smile formed across his dark face. He liked the heat.

“Huh! No. And – don’t tell me!” she scowled at him with a smile on her lips. “Ageing is the same process. It’s all time. The trick is what you do with it. Think about, her. So tiny. What does she have to do? No worries about work, paying bills, what time to get up or go to sleep, no clothes to iron or meals to plan or shopping to do – no temperamental car…”

“I know! I said I’d call the mechanics…” his smile reversed and he looked over the yard. The grass was turning brown.

“All she does, is learn. Ten thousand hours of being hungry. Wondering what that feeling is, when it comes and goes, what makes it stop. Then she gets it. Ten thousand hours of us talking, sounds, noises and her copying our faces, our mouths, making sounds of her own – then, bam! She’s talking.” She was so hot! A trickle of sweat had formed at her hairline and was trying to weave its way down her face.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “It’s wonderful.”

The baby murmured. They held a collective parental breath – the baby stayed asleep – they exhaled.

“I’ll put her down.” She stood. She needed to be cool, the baby was like her father, she seemed so content in the heat.

“Hey” he called out softly. “How long is it? Ten thousand hours, in real time.”

“Well,” she frowned, calculating. “An hour a day would be, say thirty years.” She stepped through the patio-doors into the soothing shade.

“Gosh!” Well I still have some practising to do then, eh?” he winked. She grinned and they stumbled into the house (carefully).

2. The trick is what you do with it.

Her legs were stone and jelly. Solid rock that wouldn’t bend and shakes she couldn’t stop.

“Hmm?” the Director stared at her. He was tall and thin and wore a silvery suit with a blue tie. “No legs.” He peered down at her pink tights.

“I, I’m just a bit, nervous.” She shrugged, looking down just to be sure her legs were still there. They were. Concentrating on her pose, she straightened up, stretched as tall as she could, pointed toes out, ankles clamped tightly together. But she felt all angles and pointy, not smooth and fluid as she had seen it happen inside her head.

“It’s in your shoulders” Madame said, pointing with a stiff arm and sniffing as though there was an infection she may catch if she was too close.

Louisa thought they were both rude. She shrugged.

“Ah! I see it” nodded the Director. He clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward.

“I can learn” Louisa told them, with enthusiasm. “I will – practice more. Every day!” She smiled, holding her hands tightly together, keeping her shoulders back.

“Practice! Practice? You should be doing that already. An hour a day? Pish!” Madame scowled.

“Have you not done your ten-mille?” The Director scrunched up his eyebrows and gave Louisa a penetrating stare. Louisa shuffled her feet.

“She, doesn’t know. Look at her!” Madame exclaimed. Her eyes bulged with disgust.

“I don’t” agreed Louisa.

“Oh? I have to explain?” he was agitated and turned to his companion: “Why don’t they know?” Madame shook her head.

The Director stepped forward, placing his shoes a millimetre from the girl’s and into her face, with a voice adults used for babies, he said: “Now dear. It is a proven fact – all of every talent, is practice. It is in the Learning. No tricks, no shortcuts. No half-hearted pretence of doing a bit here and there, when one feels like it.” His face moved closer, leaning, until his nose almost touched hers and she felt his breath on her mouth. She wanted to squirm away but she dare not. “It is Not, not, a natural talent. There is no magic gifts. Talent is torture.”

Without moving, his voice altered as he directed his next comment to Madame: “Oh, the numbers that still won’t accept it!” Then back to the baby voice, he continued speaking to the girl: “It is simple enough. If you can count. Ten thousand hours. No more, no less. That is what you must do. Come back then, and – we’ll see.”

At home, Louisa told her parents that she hadn’t got a place at the National Dance School. They consoled her as best they could. Their stomachs twisted, feeling her pain of disappointment and their own as their child went to bed without supper. She was too upset to eat.

In her room, Louisa opened the Calc-App on her phone. She tapped in numbers – adding, guessing, subtracting. She chewed the end of a pencil and wrote down the results in a blue notebook. Then she scribbled them out and started again.

Louisa was 11 1/4 years old and she had been dancing since she was 5 (her parents said). It would take years! But she made a plan. And from the next day, she began again. She wrote down all the hours she practiced and if she had to miss a session she would put extra hours on another session. Dancing was all she thought about.

 3. Practice, Practice, Practice.

When she was eighteen and two months, she returned to the National Dance School. She performed with grace, she charmed the Director and Madame, though they had assistants now and were seated throughout her performance and the interviews.

She got a place.

The training was intense but she thrived on the pressure. She learned new techniques and would practice a new step or routine until she perfected it. She was becoming the star pupil in the 18-20 year olds.

When she was eighteen and ten months old, she attempted a lift with a spin and she fell. Her ankle was broken. She needed an operation and rest. It was a serious accident. Her dancing career was over.

Louisa danced in her head but it made her feel sick, knowing the moves she had been able to do. Her parents worried she would fall into a depression. They bought her things to occupy her time whilst she healed: books, comics, magazines, music, movies – at first she rejected these things. Her parents’ insides quivered. They hired a counsellor who managed to help Louisa accept the change.

She did the first jigsaw as a joke (being ironic – she told her friends) because jigsaws were for kids and old ladies. But with hours laying with her ankle elevated, the jigsaws kept her busy. Her parents got her second-hand ones from the local charity shops, friends bought her new ones – they looked for extreme versions that had hidden puzzles inside or had two sides or that had clues but no picture.

After ten months, her ankle healed, though it was sore and stiff. She could walk but she had a slight limp. The hospital sent her appointments for physiotherapy – she ignored them. To Louisa, her dancing was over, the limp would remain as a reminder of that old dream. Besides – there was a new puzzle. It was a 4D version, of constellations.

Her ankle ached in winter, when it rained, when it was about to rain – she didn’t care. She had bags under her eyes, her skin was a yellowy shade, she yawned constantly but she never felt tired. If anyone asked after her health, she would smile and say ‘I am fine’ which satisfied them enough.

4. Becoming ‘perfect’

When she was 23 and four months she made a World Record for the fastest jigsaw completed. It was a puzzle of 2,500 pieces and she did it with her right-hand behind her back (she was right-handed). Of course, as is the way of World Records, someone else did better than her a few months later. Louisa didn’t care.

She did 5,000 pieces with one-hand, or two puzzles (or three or four) at the same time. She got faster and more ambitious. She did one blind-folded, just touching the pieces and seeing the puzzle in her head – the picture didn’t matter, it was all in the shapes, the edges, the curves.

By 28 she had been on TV showing off her tricks. There had been a book about her and they wanted to make a movie. She had a stoop from the hunched posture and her eyes, though excellent at close-range struggled at further than two metres. Her limp had worsened and she often needed a stick.

She didn’t care, she practised and practised.

Her parents looked at their precious child, grown-up yet deteriorating before their eyes. Their insides turned to sludge.

>> by Elizabeth Haley-Wood

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