The Truth About Mastery: 10,000 Hours or 10,000,000 Hours?

You can do ANYTHING. Anything is possible!


Those who say “YEAAAAHHH RIIIGHT” must do so tepidly – as tepidly as an ice skater upon a frozen lake: thirsting to dance yet anticipating pain.

            It’s a good dream, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if – REALLY – you could do anything?


            Take a second now to think what you would do. Don’t skip this step! Think of at least 1 thing you would do – RIGHT NOW – if you could do anything.

            Fill in the blank, if I could do ANYTHING (right now), I would __________________________


            Now, what’s holding you back from this?

            For the less creative of you whose response included any disturbingly depraved actions (rape, murder, thievery), you’re missing the point. Of course you COULD do any of those things… you’re just worried about getting away with it… then again, you probably don’t really even want to do those things anyway – perhaps you’re confusing your true desire with your inner rebel (but that’s another story).

            I’m talking about MAJOR things – like play the national anthem at the super-bowl status, become president of the United States, enter the major leagues. Now, if anything were possible along these lines we’d really be talking – our lives could be decided much like going to a supermarket: you can get the goods so long as you can pay the price.

            However, we’re still unsure: is it really that easy? Is becoming an expert pianist really as straightforward (albeit tedious) as buying mustard?


            I’ve had this conversation before…. And the answer my more intellectually inclined friends almost undeniably return with is: HELL NO! Work as HARD as you want, unless you’ve got a big inheritance forget thinking you can work up the personal capital to become Michael Jordan.


            Well…. Yes – and No.

            Yes: Michael Jordan was extraordinary. He was outstanding. He was not only excellent at what he did, he was arguably THE BEST at what he did.

            I’m not sure if this is an American thing – or just a human thing – but we often times miss the mountain for the peak. What’s the zenith compared to the rest of the tip? It’s a single point, surrounded by 10 others, then 1000 others, then 10,000 others….. then a billion others, so on and so forth.

            Maybe we just don’t do enough mountain climbing. The difference between the highest point and the second highest can be such an insignificant matter of degree.


            So we have two conflicting ideas: (1) that the highest point is the “best” point and (2) the difference between the highest point and the 2nd highest can be insignificant.

            Pay attention now – it’s easy to miss it! – what does this mean? It means that we care about relative advantage more than absolute advantage…. But REALLY!!!! There was a study done asking people if they would prefer $50k when everyone else they worked with made $25k or if they’d prefer 150k when everyone else they worked with made 300k. Sure enough, participants chose the first option.

            What does this mean? Perhaps we have an innate desire to “be better than”… or “to be the best”.


            This is great. It leads good men to become great men and it leads great women to become legendary women. Imagine all that has been achieved in service of this desire? Reflect on it’s service in your own life… at the gym… at school… in the office… filling out your applications.

            This drive is remarkably powerful. However, it can also be remarkably destructive. I can’t imagine how many people have killed themselves simply because they were not the “best”… “THE BEST”… I’m sorry, but what the &#*# does that really mean?!

            The poignancy of this drive is even further emphasized when we realize how arbitrary the label “best” really is. In school, for example, it is adhering to the standards of your teacher. Your own standards? No. Objective standards? By whose standard? In sports, it is adhering to whatever silly rules someone came up with for taking a piece of rubber from one place to another. It’s silly when you remove yourself from it…. But don’t you remember a time you were SO CAUGHT UP in someone else’s standards that you did everything possible to fulfil them, without once realizing that they were about as far as standards could get from your own?? I’ve been there before….


            So how does this relate to mastery?


            The first point is simple: our level of mastery may depend less upon our acquisition of a skill and more upon certain arbitrary standards for what it means to possess mastery over that skill. This is the easiest point to make, but it may in fact have the greatest repercussions.

            Some people suffer Anorexia of the body… but I think most people suffer Anorexia of the mind – of the spirit – meaning that no matter how good they get, no matter how close they get towards exactly what they want, they still perceive themselves as far away…. They still believe that they can get closer. And, again, look at the marvelous things that have been achieved through this utter, ceaseless persistence of the insatiable intellect…. And, again, look at all the anger, the sadness, the anguish, the horror.


            The second point relates to the first: without momentum, things stop moving. The quickest way to kill a project is to stall or take or a break. Sure, you may think: ahh, I need some time now to clear my mind…. And maybe you do… but then, just think Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra in 11 days and god created the world in 7. Things happen fast – if you allow too much space between your actions and your success, failure will bread like weeds in the middle.

            That’s why the best aid to success is constant and directed progress. This is momentum—a drive forward. Have a goal? Don’t make it unachievable. Don’t make it so grandiose that you set yourself up for failure… or, worse, injury (I haven’t ran for years! I need to get back in shape! So I’m going to run A MILLION MILES!!!! Hello failure. Hello torn tendons… goodbye running. Goodbye progress. Goodbye goal.)


            So how does this all relate in a practical way?


            One thing that’s really interesting about chess players is that, despite the reputation of chess as an “intellectual’s” game, grandmasters aren’t particularly brilliant (many were just, actually, crazy). Of course, they’re not dummies! I mean, they’re good at chess, right? Yes… but they their memories were on average no higher than anyone else’s, regardless of their ability to play 10 games simultaneously with their eyes closed.


            In fact, Polgar showed the world that chess mastery does not require an insane amount inborn talent… rather, it requires an insane amount of perfect guidance. Anyone could learn it. Anyone could learn to be REALLY good at it… they just had to have the RIGHT kind of training… and commit to it.


            The trouble of course is with that second part…. It may be relatively easy to find the right guidance, however, the best guidance means nothing to the athlete who never practices. There is no substitute for practice. When you look at a body builder, his muscles all scream in unison: WORK!!!!!! Steroids may be a leverage, but they are not the work.

            There is a statistically significant higher amount of soccer players born later in the year than the beginning (forgive me if I switched it). Why? Because growing up, they were the oldest on their team… meaning also, perhaps, the most developed… and, as such, could excel in ways the other students couldn’t.


            Does this mean that they were “naturally” better soccer players? Who knows…. But it’s worth considering the alternative. Those older kids had A LOT of momentum going for them… driving them through those brutal practice hours where all the losing kids might have become discouraged and given up – without ever realizing that, absolutely speaking, they might be EVEN BETTER!



            Okay, so after all that, what’s the bottom line?


            Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours to attain mastery in any subject. This may or may not be right. But that’s not the question we should be asking ourselves.

            First, we should be asking ourselves: WHAT DO I WANT TO DO?!

            Then, we should ask ourselves whether or not we can already do it.

            Last, if we decide that we’re unable to already do it but have the committed desire to be able to do it, then we figure out the steps to getting us to where we want to be. Remembering 2 things along the way (1) we shouldn’t be deceived by the marginal discrepancies between absolute and relative values, misled by our need for power. (2) we should embrace the idea of momentum: small steps turn a large wheel. Success breeds success. Go spread your babies!!