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