10,000 Hours and the Pursuit of Mastery

TAGS: Pursuit of Mastery, outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, mastery, practice, Mark Dugdale, time


Last summer I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, published in 2008. Gladwell makes the argument in one chapter that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is the magic number for greatness, pointing as examples to Bill Gates’ hours of access to computers in his early teens and the Beatles lengthy gigs in Hamburg, Germany before worldwide popularity. A Princeton meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice threw cold water on Gladwell’s premise, saying practice accounted for just 12% difference in performance in various domains. 12% at an elite level sounds noteworthy, but I’ll leave the infighting to scientists and pop psychologists regarding the anecdotal nuances of the data. I personally think Malcolm’s on to something.

So what’s 10,000 hours anyway?

A typical 40-hour workweek equates to 2,080 hours in a year. At that pace, reaching 10,000 hours takes 4.8 years. I began bodybuilding at 18 and trained an average of eight hours per week if you include cardio, yoga, weight training, posing, etc. I won the NPC USA Overall 4,992 hours into the process and my first pro contest at 9,568 hours. I’m not claiming that 10,000 hours is the Holy Grail for success, but it factors into the equation. Certainly, genetics in bodybuilding or any sport plays a major role too. At five feet, six inches I’m not getting a contract for starting center in the NBA anytime soon — 10,000 hours or not.

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Again, I’m not squabbling over the 10,000-hour rule, but the big takeaway is that any level of success in life requires work — hard work! Be it relationally, in business, sports, music, powerlifting, acting, writing, and so forth. If you want to achieve a certain level of proficiency, be prepared to work diligently and often to the point of exhaustion. Most people fail to achieve their goals not because they lack the ability but because they lack the tenacity. Life’s hard and frequently people quit, sometimes 10 meters from the finish line and sometimes two inches.

Thorns and Thistles

Shortly into the first book of the Bible sin enters the world, fracturing everything—the wholeness of earth, harmony between man and woman—and ushers in fear and distance between mankind and God. It matters very little to me if you believe the Genesis account, but regardless of your inclinations towards the veracity of the Bible, we can all agree something is definitely wrong in this world. Just reading headlines exposes us to the harsh realities of pain, suffering, and injustice on a global scale. It’s the common ground we all share. Things are not perfect.

Genesis 3:17-18 speaks of the effects of sin on our labor, becoming toilsome, thorns and thistles. Our work may be marked by moments of joy, but ultimately we won’t escape setbacks, frustration, and disappointment. Nothing will come easy, and I believe at the root of our goal-abandonment is thorns and thistles. Achievement isn’t all luck or inherited aptitude, but the reward of a relentless, unwavering focus on a target, often marred by vexation and obscured by defeat. How many such roadblocks does a person experience on the road to 10,000 hours? I can’t quantify an answer for you but am sure the number corresponds to more than most choose to endure.

The Value of Youth

Young people often get discredited for their lack of planning and forward thinking. Short on financial assets and experience, and lacking a proven track record, leaves many to turn a blind-eye and closed-ear to them. Sure, some of the dismissal stems from immaturity, but Lord willing, most youth possess an abundance of an asset that older, more experienced people lack: time. Yes, time is on the side of youth. Unfortunately, the copious quantity of time frequently leaves it squandered like a fortune gained by a lottery ticket. Are you young? Teens or twenties? Now is your time.

Malcolm theorized logging hours of deliberate practice leads to world-class results. If pursuit of your goals starts now, you’ll leave much of your peers in the rearview while they're busy wasting their time, talent, and treasure. Avoid the diversion of complacency in your present abundance of time requires discipline. Don’t take a pass on deliberate action and a sense of urgency due to an excess of time. Similar to money invested over the course of multiple decades, you’ll amass a fortune of results via small steps today.

One of my prayers for the youth of this age, and particularly the young men who one day take my daughters’ hand in marriage, is that they embarrass me. Embarrass? Yes, embarrass me by their pursuit of the Lord, the way they love their wives, raise their kids, work their job, manage their finances, seek out accountability, plan for the future, and give generously. Youth get excused for being young, but I want to see them raise my game by their example. Like Paul wrote to Timothy, “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.”


Life promises no guarantees of success. The only constant assurance is your labor will be marked by irritation, setback, and failure. Expect it. Embrace it as evidence you’re on the path to achievement. Start logging your 10,000 hours today. Become an outlier.

Header Image Credit:  Sergiy Tryapitsyn © 123RF.com


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