“Everyone who managed to master anything did basically three things. First, they STARTED. Second, they started TERRIBLE. And third, they trudged persistently through being terrible to become masterful over many many hours and repetitions.”
It is often said that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Everyone now seems to have heard of this rule. And generally, that’s a pretty good barometer for truly mastering a skill: if you look at 11-year-old violin prodigies and the like, you’ll still arrive at 10,000 hours, at as many as 4-5 hours of practice a day, every day for 6 or 7 years.
It goes without saying then that the people who do master something at an early age are essentially exceptions, and are probably dedicating most of their free time to that single activity. That is likely true — but that doesn’t mean you can’t become good or even masterful at something by dedicating much less time, and starting later in life.
Here’s the reality: everyone who ever managed to master anything did basically three things. First, they STARTED. They just started. Second, they started TERRIBLE; in relative terms, every expert was at one point BAD. And third, they trudged persistently through being terrible to become masterful over many many hours and repetitions.
So what does this mean for people like you and like me? You have a full-time job or maybe you work multiple jobs. You’ve got kids or pets or family to take care of. And you’re fitting a few hours a week of exercise into your schedule. But let me ask you this: how many hours a week do you spend not improving a skill? This includes just general browsing of the internet, spending time on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, most of Tumblr, a lot of reddit (assuming of course that you aren’t using social for specific and effortful marketing of yourself or your business or brand in some manner). This includes time spent watching TV that is designed for entertainment, which is basically anything on TV other than educational documentaries. Of course nearly all forms of gaming are also included in this. How many hours a week do you spend there?
Now imagine spending about 45 minutes a day less doing those things. I know for myself personally, I easily spend over an hour a day messing around on reddit. I enjoy it. Quite often I do learn from it. But I’m not developing a skill. It’s just something that’s sort of mindless and amusing. There’s a value in that. But I bring this up because I personally do my best never to complain that I don’t have time to do something. If I prioritize something as important or valuable to me, I can make time, and I know that because it would be so easy and inconsequential to me to cut out 45 minutes of the day that I spend just browsing the web. That’s where we get to the rule of 5 hours a week.
If you spend 5 hours a week effortfully working on something, it amounts to 20 hours a month developing a skill. Imagine if, at work, you have one colleague and you’re on a team, but you’re also in direct competition for performance, promotions, and so on. If you and your colleague both show up at 9 am every day, and both leave at 5 pm every day, and neither of you brings work home, you’re both working the same amount. Now, imagine you get in at 8:00 am every day instead of 9. Every 2 months, you have a full work week’s edge — a 40 hour lead — over your colleague. That means every 12 months, you’re essentially lapping your colleague or competition by an extra month and a half. You added a month and a half of effortful, work-related skill development, all because maybe you sleep an hour earlier instead of playing some extra video games before bed, and thus you get up an hour earlier five days a week to, say, read articles related to your work, or practicing or acquiring new skills related to your work, such as learning new tricks in excel, developing new understanding of a coding language, whatever it might be. And these are just white collar desk job examples but this can undoubtedly prove useful in any other physical or blue collar work — imagine you get in an hour earlier to your shift to experiment with new approaches to potentially speeding up your work, or maybe you ask your manager or a more experienced coworker if you can lead another project on the side, prepare things for the day ahead of time, or shadow them to see what they do differently that others don’t. You don’t have to necessarily find that time either — get creative and efficient. I like to listen to audiobooks and podcasts about personal finance, investing, sales methodologies, psychology, sociology, marketing, and I listen to them on my commute. I spend about an hour and a half every work day in the car, meaning I can essentially read a book at a pace of about two a month without actually having to make any type of change to my schedule. I know some people like to do the same while they’re exercising. It isn’t always about offsetting the time — you can often find ways to kill two birds with one stone.
And of course, offsetting or layering this time from other activities to develop a skill is something that can be applied to any extracurricular skill as well. Imagine how much more fit and strong you can be if you trade just 45 minutes a day of browsing Facebook for 45 minutes a day on a run, or doing pushups and pullups, or going to the gym to lift weights, or even joining a 90-minute pilates class three days a week. If you don’t play any instruments, but you’ve always wished you could, what’s stopping you? Start now. Start today. There are so many resources out there to learn such a wide range of skills, many times at very low buy-in costs. Practice for an hour a day, 5 days of the week, instead of sitting in front of the computer watching YouTube videos. Just that level of commitment will get you 2,600 hours of practice by the time 10 years pass — no, that isn’t enough to become truly world-class, elite, and masterful at that instrument, but I promise you that is enough to be considered very good by most standards. You’ll be beyond good enough to play with other musicians in a band, record your own music, etc. And for a vast majority of people, that is more than enough to feel a sense of self efficacy in that skill. In fact, I would make the argument that at just 1,000 hours, a typical practitioner graduates from beginner to early intermediate level, and in general intermediate level skill will appear to others as recognizably practiced and superior to zero or beginner level skill in just about any undertaking.
And remember that 10,000 hours is the level for absolute mastery. It takes about 10 years of consistent, effortful practice to reach that level, and it is admittedly very difficult to do it in more than one or two things at a time just due to the sheer time needed, but again, we’re talking mastery. We’re talking about black belts, borderline elites, among the best in the world at that particular skill. Keep in mind to go another level deeper, to be elite AMONG the elite, likely requires at least another 10,000 hours AS a master.
31 year old American Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps started swimming at age 7 and at the time was afraid to put his face in the water. He did what every master did once. He started, and he was awful. Today, Phelps trains 5-6 hours a day, 6 days a week, which means he clocks in 10,000 hours nearly every 5 years. Again, we’re talking someone with 23 Olympic gold medals, and undoubtedly Phelps has some natural genetic advantages for that particular skill, but the point here is, if you want to be masterful or elite at any skill, you have to know the commitment it takes. For most people, it’s going to be a stretch to achieve that in any short amount of time. But truly anyone can acquire a skill just offsetting 5 hours of essentially unassigned time each week to developing that skill. And of course, dedicating even more time to a single skill will proportionally speed up acquisition and mastery of that skill. But again: assess yourself and your priorities. If there’s something you want to do and you aren’t actively going after it, figure out where you are spending just 45 minutes of each day. Assign that time to practice. It will be literally a matter of weeks before you see noticeable advances in your skill. Then, a matter of months before you develop a little more fluency. And who knows, maybe as you improve you find that you are passionate about that pursuit and you begin to find or dedicate more of your truly free time to developing that skill. So start today, and start with just 5 hours a week.