Steroids and Microwaves

To get good at something takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. Not exactly breaking news, right?

But how much time and how much practice? For world-class skill, about 10 years and 10,000 hours spent honing your expertise in a certain area!  To break that down into tangible numbers, that’s practicing 20 hours a week for roughly 10 years. That’s a lot of practice!

Malcolm Gladwell delves into this at length in his book, Outliers, but for a quick synopsis and some great insight, check out his latest blog for The New Yorker. He also discusses a new book, The Sports Gene, just written by David Epstein (listen to NPR interview here, which gets into “natural” ability and athletic success. This has sparked debate about the 10,000 rule, with some using Epstein’s book to support the notion of speed-learning and instant expertise (see related articles below).

Personally, I tend to fall somewhere in the middle of Gladwell and Epstein in terms of the amount of time I believe to be necessary to become truly amazing at something. However, for the purposes of today’s post, Gladwell highlights the importance of answering the questions in a previous post of mine, Something Worth Cooking.

You can’t cheat the system when it comes to expertise. You might have some natural or cultural leg-up in terms of ability, and it is possible to make the system more efficient and start the process earlier in life (see Mozart, Tiger Woods, etc.), but you can’t become great at something without putting in the work.  Study after study says you can’t hurry the process. Sure, you can shave some hours off here and there, but at the end of the day the best end results take a long time to reach.

We have a tendency to want a shortcut. A way around the seemingly endless amount of time between when we decide we want something really bad and actually have it in hand. We see this in sports all the time: an athlete has plenty of natural ability and desire, but wants to cheat the system and use steroids to jump ahead in their “expertise.” They sometimes reach their goals (see Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, etc.), but it’s not a genuine product. It’s like a processed meal that would have been great (and much better for you) if made from scratch.

In this sense, microwaves are like steroids; microwaves trick us into thinking that we can have any food we want almost instantly. This is actually kind of true (just check out your frozen dinner section at the local grocery store), but it’s a façade. What’s the last cookbook recipe you remember that called for “setting the microwave to 2.5 minutes?” I’m reminded of the Jim Gaffigan joke in which he explains what it would be like to see Hot Pockets as a menu item in a restaurant.

I am not writing this to make you think that it is impossible to ever reach your ultimate goals. If you are 40 years old and are starting a completely new career, there is plenty of hope to become great at your new job! If you’ve never run a day in your life and want to run a marathon, don’t worry, it is indeed possible. I’m not asking you to quit your day job and focus entirely on your passion for the next 10 years. Most of us don’t even want to be world-class in anything; we would settle for getting a tiny bit better in the next 6 months to a year.

I’m writing this to change your focus. 10,000 hours is a lot of hours. Let’s be honest, 20 hours is a lot of hours! So why not focus on 1 hour.  You need an insane amount of motivation to put the amount of total work that is needed in order to become great at something, but if you’re passionate about something, you’re surely motivated to put in 1 hour, aren’t you? If you are focused on the “10,000th” hour of expertise, the exact point at which you become great at something, you’ll never make it. But if you focus on getting a tiny bit better right now, then the hours will fly by.

How can you work on something you are passionate about right now?

Take one hour this week and go explore your passion. The Mise en Place Leader focuses on the set-up, the preparation for the finished product, which makes the end-result easier to get to. This week, do something that sets you up for a bigger success in the future. Forget the 10,000 rule; let’s create the 1 hour rule! Share your stories below, on Facebook, or on twitter. #the1hourrule

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Something Worth Cooking

What did you have for dinner a week ago?

If that took you longer than 10 seconds to remember, or if you still have no idea, that’s fine, and you’re not alone. But let me ask you another question: Can you remember what you ate for your last “special” meal? Think about the last time you made breakfast in bed for your significant other, cooked your family a special holiday dinner, or just invited friends over so you could enjoy that nice bottle of wine you’ve been saving since, well, Thursday.

Was this question any easier? I can remember the braised beef my girlfriend and I had several weeks ago because it was something special we wanted to cook together and it was a planned meal. That is, we didn’t get home from work and say, “Ohh, I guess we should eat dinner, but I don’t want to think about it, so let’s order out.” The meal meant a lot to both of us, and it was the act of making the meal together that made it so memorable. How is that possible when, after a long week of work, we were surely exhausted and starving hours before actually sitting down to eat? It is because in this instance the food, the end result, the sustenance that all humans need, was not the focus.

 It was a passion and focus on the process. The planning, the preparation, and being together are what made this meal memorable, not the braised beef.

Human motivation is interesting; the more readily accepted and popular thinking is that hunger is the #1 motivator. If someone is hungry for something, they’ll do anything they can to get it. This theory generally holds up in most situations, especially when there are limited resources. So, if I’m trying to motivate you to do something, I should just make you really “hungry” for it, right? This is true if we want something done quickly without any thought put into it. Hunger puts a focus on the here and now, and on personal needs: “Screw the rest of you, I’m hungry, and I need food, now!” I’m sure the Donner Party would agree with this theory of motivation.

Why do you think McDonald’s restaurants can be found at every rest stop on every interstate in America? You don’t find Emeril setting up shop in these places, do you? This is because hunger is a motivator in this situation; people don’t want to plan, think, or wait for food when they are trying to finish the 6 hour drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house with 4 kids in the back.

Hunger calls for a quick fix and involves little self-control and thinking. Hunger is an amazing motivator for getting things done…with shoddy results.  

This is why the kitchen is such a great metaphor for developing yourself in anything and everything that you do. Leadership and personal development is about passion, not hunger.

Hunger is fast food that will take years off your life. Passion is the memorable meal. Your passion is a meal worth cooking.

Here’s my question:

  • What is something worth cooking for you? That is, something you want so bad right now, but have to plan, put together, and won’t get to enjoy for a while. Don’t worry about the planning part right now, just focus on the passion.
  • What are you “starving” for but couldn’t run down the street to have made for you in 30 seconds?
  • What’s something you would be willing to work towards because the end result inspires you so much?

Once you have an idea of your passion, hunger can be tamed while working towards this worthwhile end product. What you do with that clear picture of the end result we will get to later.