In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the factors that comprise exceptional achievement in any walk of life. It turns out that a certain level of talent, though not genius, is the price of entry. But after talent, which many people have, it’s mostly a matter of practice––10,000 hours of practice to be precise. No matter the discipline, that’s what all those who gravitate to the top echelon have in common.
To be sure, not all practice is alike. There’s a big difference between five years of experience and one year of experience five times. Good mentors count for a lot. Good colleagues, too. Still, oodles of practice, research suggests, is the key.
Gladwell reports that by the time the Beatles (ages 21 to 24) hit the world’s consciousness in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1200 times. Many bands don’t perform 1200 times in their entire career. When Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard as a sophomore to start Microsoft, he’d been programming virtually around the clock since 8th grade, way more than 10,000 hours. Mozart, it turns out, was a late bloomer. A so-called child prodigy, he didn’t produce his greatest work until he’d been composing for 20 years.
Obviously, few of us spend 10,000 hours becoming accomplished at something that elicits society’s accolades. But, if we live long enough, each of us spends way more than 10,000 hours cultivating something much more important: our perception of ourselves and the world we live in.
How else do so many of us become chronic victims, blaming our pain on “them”: rotten parents to booger-picking morons. Or how else do we become convinced that we are unlovable, unworthy of happiness, undeserving of forgiveness? And how about those grudges we hold for perceived wrongs done to us long ago? It takes a lot of practice to keep them simmering year after year.
What if all day, every day, we wore a backpack in which we carried one pebble for each time over the course of our life we have had the exact same inner rant enumerating the defects of someone we know whose middle name, we’re convinced, is Asshole? Would there be enough chiropractors to go around?
Then there are those of us who actively pursue becoming nothing but love. (The key word here is “actively”.) It doesn’t mean we don’t have our own hefty backpack. But it does mean that, over time, we add to it fewer and fewer pebbles. Not only that! We learn we can actually remove pebbles. And as if by magic they are replaced by the weightless light of forgiveness, acceptance and compassion.
I once heard a monk say, “Unless you are fanatically positive, you will never know your own soul.” Imagine spending 10,000 hours testing that advice.
Bob Dylan wrote: He who is not busy being born is busy dying. Which is to say, we’re all busy doing something. But do we know what?
To me, being born includes choosing to meet our beliefs, preferences, habits and addictions––and softening our attachment to them, stepping with evermore wonder into the void of the unknown, becoming better friends with the great mystery of life, specifically the stuff that scares us.
Dying, meanwhile, is whatever limits that friendship, that embrace, that wonder. Whatever prompts us to run from pains and contradictions, to ignore the consequences of choosing love, and of choosing fear.
Imagine spending 10,000 hours becoming happy.