A General Theory of 10,000 Hours

It’s been said that to get really great at something, you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. What are the factors that influence whether you can get in those 10,000 hours, and whether they will be fruitful?

I present to you A General Theory of 10,000 Hours. Here are the factors:

Raw Talent
Are you born to do this thing? The same way Lance Armstrong has a freakish heart & lungs, or Michael Phelps has the perfect torso-to-leg ratio for swimming.

Passion
How much do you enjoy doing this thing? Does it put you in “flow?” This makes it easy to spend lots of time doing what you’re doing.

Determination
How much discomfort are you willing to endure to continue getting better? (Determination may be influenced by a Past Wounds factor.)

Past Wounds
Past Wounds can have effects that take you in both directions: They can make you feel like you have something to prove (I was a “nerd” in High School, so now I’ll be a famous actor), or they can fuel compensatory behavior, thus giving you superpowers (Steven Colbert’s father and brothers died in a plane crash when he was 10, so he was always cracking jokes to try to cheer up his mother); conversely, they may form a false internal story (“I’m not good at things”) that blocks you from succeeding.

Complementary Experience
Have previous experiences brought you skills that transfer to this endeavor? If you’re going to race motorcycles and you grew up doing rodeos, maybe that helps.

Alternatives
How pleasant or unpleasant are the alternatives to being successful at this thing? If you can quit grinding to go live a comfortable life, that Alternative may tempt you from your 10,000 hours. If for some reason that actually sounds unpleasant to you, it will fuel your Determination. The effects of Alternatives work on a bell curve: Alternatives can also be viewed as “safety nets” which make it more comfortable to keep going.

Taste
This could also be attention-to-detail. If you don’t have the Taste to spot your mistakes, you’ll have little “deliberate practice,” and no standard to aspire to (like that famous Ira Glass video you’ve already seen).

These factors are critical in answering the two big questions that lead someone through 10,000 hours.

Should I keep going?
if (RT + CE) × P > (D × PW) / A

Raw Talent and Complementary Experience can by multiplied by Passion, but that has to be greater than the ratio of your Determination times your Past Wounds over your Alternatives — or, you’ll give up.

Should I try something different this next time?
if RT + CE < T

Raw Talent and Complementary Experience combine to produce the quality of the work. If that is consistently lower than one’s Taste, that person will keep trying new things. If this is repeated, the practice will be deliberate.

Note: if you check my math carefully, you’ll notice that, regarding math, I’m low on RT and P, and because of PW and my A’s, I can’t even meet my low T. I invite revisions by someone who knows what they’re doing.

On my podcast, Love Your Work I explore the RT, P, D, PW, CE, A, and T that helped people become successful. Listen to the interview with Jason Fried, or subscribe on iTunes.

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