You are fabulous. Have I told you that recently? You have incredible strength, bucketloads of wisdom and a great future ahead of you. You can achieve great things.
How do I know that? We’ll come to that in a little while …
First, I need to tell you about an epiphany I have just had. A lightbulb going off, forehead-slapping, run down the street naked shouting “eureka” sort of moment. At my time of life that’s not a pretty sight.
I am a great fan of the 10,000 hours theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”. Put simply, Malcolm Gladwell looked at a large number of successful people and found that they all had one thing in common. They had all put in around about 10,000 hours of focussed practice.
Whether it was the Beatles, Mozart, famous sportspeople, it was always the same conclusion … the secret to success was 10,000 hours of focussed practice.
This was reinforced by a recent article on the BBC News website:
If you are in “Too Long; Didn’t Read” mode, I will paraphrase. It says that successful people fail lots of times before they are successful. For example, two groups of pottery students were asked to make pots. One group was asked to make lots of pots. The other group were asked to make the best single pot that they could. The researchers found that the best pots came from the people from the “lots of pots” group. By trying and failing many times over they were putting in a version of the 10,000 hours practice. The poor saps making just one brilliant pot never stood a chance.
The article goes on to cite James Dyson making more than 5,000 prototypes for his vacuum cleaner before he got it right. And we have all heard the story about Edison’s 1,000 failed attempts to make a lightbulb, haven’t we?
I used to have a job advising people about how to get promoted. One of the pieces of advice we used to give was that you should apply for lots of jobs. For one thing this gives you more experience in applying and being interviewed. You also don’t know when your luck is in and you get a job that you didn’t think you would.
This is far better than waiting for your perfect job to come up before applying for it. And then finding that you blow the interview because you are out of practice or there is a better candidate than you. It happens.
I love this sort of research. I find it incredibly liberating and positive because it says to me that anyone can improve through practice. We may not be able to reach the dizzy heights of the Beatles or Mozart, but quantity of work and practice can help us to get better than we are.
Of course the 10,000 hours figure is just a notional average. You aren’t Ringo at 9,999 hours and then miraculously turn into John, Paul or George sixty minutes later. And if everyone is putting in 10,000 hours than to be truly world champion you may need to go higher. It’s the general principle that matters.
It turns out that the secrets to success are not all that secret:
Focus on what you want to achieve.
Practice and learn, practice and learn, until your head hurts and your fingers bleed.
Take risks, make mistakes, fail, but keep on going.
Steadily improve by small incremental steps.
That’s not the forehead-slapping epiphany. What took me by surprise is that some people have a genuine problem with all of this. These so-called secrets of success may be backed with lots of scientific research. It might be what nearly all successful people say in their autobiographies. But there is a problem. There is something missing.
I started to see people on the internet who absolutely hated the 10,000 hours theory. Management gurus have queued up to take pot-shots at it. Paul McCartney once said:
“I’ve read the book. I think there is a lot of truth in it […] I mean there were an awful lot of bands that were out in Hamburg who put in 10,000 hours and didn’t make it, so it’s not a cast-iron theory. I think, however, when you look at a group who has been successful … I think you always will find that amount of work in the background. But I don’t think it’s a rule that if you do that amount of work, you’re going to be as successful as the Beatles.”
Yesterday in an internet forum, someone I have a great deal of respect for had a problem with the piece on the BBC News website. She wasn’t sure how it applied to her. I’ve heard other people complain about the 10,000 hours theory because it is “elitist”. Or just plain wrong.
And that got me thinking. How can some of us be inspired by ideas like this and yet others are turned off by it?
And that was when my forehead got slapped. If I were American I might let loose with a choice “d’oh” at myself. I now think there are two big problems with the 10,000 hours/ “make lots of pots” theories.
The first problem is that the 10,000 hours theory has been over-simplified to the point where it has become meaningless. Even Macca’s comment shows that he doesn’t really understand it. People are getting upset by what they think the theory says, not what it actually says.
Gladwell is not saying that 10,000 hours guarantees success. That would be silly. There can only be one world champion at a time in a given sport and yet dozens of contenders might have each put in 10,000 hours. I can practice for 1,000,000 hours and I will never be tall enough to be a champion basketball player.
He is not saying that we all have to practice for exactly 10,000 hours. 5,000 hours of practice is better than none. 8,000 is better than 5,000. It’s not rocket science.
The Beatles became the Beatles because they put in more than 10,000 hours of practice in the Hamburg clubs. And they had three very talented song-writers who were honing their creativity before they picked up musical instruments. And they had a good manager in Brian Epstein. George Martin has been described by some as the “fifth Beatle”. Then there was the support from their record label. And …
Successful people usually have 10,000 hours of practice in their CV, but that is not enough to guarantee success. The practice also needs to be high quality, and they need to have other advantages too.
The other problem is that this 10,000 hours stuff can make us feel guilty and/or afraid. 10,000 hours is a pretty meaningless number, so let’s break it down. If you practised for one hour a day it would take you 27 years to get to the 10,000.
Increase that to five hours a day – every day, weekends included – and the 10,000 hours will take you 5½ years.
Even if you can somehow fit in ten hours a day, you won’t hit your 10,000 hours until you have kept it up for 2.7 years.
10,000 hours is a long time.
Of course, for this magic 10,000 hours to be effective, it has to be good quality practice. How do we know if we are managing to do that? That is when the doubts start to creep in. I could devote all this time to something … and still be rubbish at the end of it.
One of the problems with the science of success is that it can be so damned macho and intimidating. When we hear that Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempt at a lightbulb, some people will be inspired to do something similar. Others will be dismayed that it took so long and doubt whether they can do it.
So I am starting to think that we have got the language wrong about success. Yes, the 10,000 hours thing is a thing. Maybe. But it is no use to us if it frightens us into inactivity. All this macho talk about putting in the hard graft can be counterproductive. I am not Thomas Edison.
It may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
If I think back to the time when I was advising people about how to get promoted, there were a few pieces of advice that really seemed to work. They resonated with many people in a way that the 10,000 hours stuff sometimes does not.
Maybe these are the real secrets of success?
- You are fabulous. Right here, right now.
- You have many skills and talents.
- Improve by making your strengths stronger more than by tackling your weaknesses.
- Practice and hard work helps to get you to your goals, but …
- Don’t beat yourself up for what has happened in the past. It has gone.
- In fact, don’t beat yourself up at all.
- Focus on the next small step. And the next. And the next.
- Make small changes to reinforce who you already are…
- … not big changes to make you into something you are not.
- If in doubt, refer to 1. You are fabulous.