10,000 Hours And 20% Of Your Work Time

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How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chunk would?

Time is always the number one concern in our lives, isn’t it? Feel free to blame consciousness. The clock is always ticking… and it’s ticking down. Some of the greatest thinking of our time comes from people who are more acutely aware of just how limited our time on this earth is. Work is no different. We’re constantly in this strange battle for time. Be it deadlines, product launches, responding to emails, starting a meeting on time, getting home on time, finding the time to blog or whatever. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

How much time will this take?

Because of the human addiction to time, we want things to happen fast, faster and fastest. We want raises, promotions and more as quickly as possible. This fascination with speed and business is especially prevalent in the digital marketing space. Because it is still (somewhat) nascent, employers are paying a premium for talent and that talent has expectations that they will be moved up as quickly as possible. We see it in the work that the industry is doing as well. Brands want to know how quickly it will take them to get a million fans on Facebook. They want to know how quickly they can change the brand narrative by engaging on Twitter. They want to know how much quick money can be made if they blast out another email promotion. But, here’s the thing:

It takes time to get good. It takes a lot of time to get great.

With that, the world keeps on spinning. So, we’re obsessed with speed and time. Clients want things to happen fast. Agencies have to appear like they are moving faster (to stay ahead). Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master something in his bestselling book, Outliers. Last week, he revisited his 10,000 hour theory in The New Yorker blog post titled, Complexity And The Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule: "No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: ‘achievement is talent plus preparation.’ But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that ‘the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.’ In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second–and more crucially for the theme of Outliers–the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focused on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. ‘He has talent by the truckload,’ I wrote of Joy. ‘But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.’"

Is it possible to be great at something in less than 10,000 hours? Or, asked another way, can we get there any faster?

According to Gladwell (and others), it doesn’t apply to everything (obviously). Some people may be inherently gifted with specific genetic and physiological gifts that make them more prone to be successful when you can match that specific gift with a specific area of expertise (Gladwell’s blog post points to areas like high jumping, etc…), but some things do have to be learned and nurtured through experience and more education. Marketing is one of those things. It takes time. Lots of time to get great at it.

What about focus?

While we’re focusing on time and how to get focused enough to earn those ten thousand hours, Google is either slowly ridding themselves of (or has already done away with) their infamous 20% rule (where every employee is expected to spend 20% of their work time focused on a personal project – no matter how outlandish). The Wall Street Journal reported today in the news item, Google’s 20% Mistake, that "one can’t just throw money and bodies at innovation–there is no correlation between the size of a company’s R&D budget and its innovation rate. Most ideas are bad ones, so you have to entertain a lot of them to find the real gems. On average, a company needs 3,000 ideas to get 300 of them formalized, 125 of them into small experimentation, ten of them officially budgeted, 1.7 launched–and one that makes money… On paper, eliminating it might look like it saves money. But the signal it sends is that management, not the workers, know what the most productive use of your time is. It’s a step down the road to a company of clock-punchers."

Time is money.

For my time (and money), all of this is less about management decisions and how HR is going to deal with the fallout, and much more about the macro issue of time well spent and how we’re all struggling in a world that is expecting us to put in our 10,000 hours and find our true groove. We can’t look to our bosses on this, we have to look within. After reading these two powerful pieces on how much time it takes to get great at (mostly) anything, the only thought I had was this: am I, personally, committed to the 10,000 hour rule and am I spending enough of the other time working on something personal, out there and possibly bigger than me?

Get less worried about how long something takes and get focused on how much better you are getting over time.  


  1. I think the 10,000 hour concept was one of the major contributions of the Outliers book and generally true. In some ways, it supports the concept Gladwell also articulated in “Blink” — that after so much experience about something you just “know.”
    Of course it is not just 10,000 hours, there are other limitations and considerations. But I am probably getting close to the 10,000 hours on blogging and yes, I am getting to the point where I just “know” and that is pretty cool. : )

  2. Excellent and timely (pun intended) post Mitch! The thing we all have in common is the same 24 hours in a day! How we choose to spend that time becomes a critical factor.

  3. 5 days ago I posted this on whether or not Expertise & the 10,000 Rule is overrated.
    In language learning for purposes of getting things done in a bilingual workplace, I’ll argue for the “10-hour Rule.” True mastery is an asymptote (Google Seth Godin’s discussion of) and incremental improvement can often make a big difference in much less time.
    (PS – This isn’t really what Malcolm and Mitch were discussing, but it’s relevant, right?)

  4. If I can be so bold as to add you also need some luck…how many actors out there who never got a break on a major film yet very talented, musicians as well.

  5. I think there is a lot of people who fit the description “Jack of all Trades – Master of none.” Perhaps it’s the lure of the internet’s “overnight success stories” that lead people to believe they are spending too much time learning to walk – or mastering their trade/craft/etc.

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