Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 243 The "10 Thousand Hour Rule"

The classical guitar is my instrument of choice. I picked it up when I retired and have been playing it everyday for over twenty years. I would guess that I have played at least two hours every day. That figures out to be over 15,000 hours.

Malcom Gladwell, writer for the New Yorker magazine, recently wrote a book where he suggested that if you do anything for 10 thousand hours you can be successful at it. I'm living proof that there are exceptions.

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

10,000 hours seems like a lot of time. When I first heard his statement it did sound reasonable. Then I gave it some thought and changed my mind. I'm convinced that it takes more than time on task to reach the successful level. One has to throw in a good dose of talent or appropriate genetic material along with a nurturing environment.

There must be many examples of people who have tried to do something for 10,000 hours and failed to become successful. The word "competent" might be more fitting. Just doing something in a competent fashion is really what we are after.

No one wants to claim to be an expert. It seems like such an arrogant thing to say. We like to say we know how to do something. We like to say we love to do something. It is up to others to use the word expert when describing how well what we do it.

We have taken this admonition to desire excellence at anything and everything as a goal. You name the area of endeavor and you will be able to find all sorts of folks who can do them well but not necessarily at the expert or even successful level. Is that so bad?

When I taught school I also spent some time, or years, as a coach: football, track, and cross country skiing. I coached long enough to see the drive for excellence take a tremendous toll on some students. They wanted to be the best. They gave up music, art, jobs, and often academic achievement so that they could be the best. The search for excellence became all consuming.


For most at the end of their school years they were left with a dream that was unfulfilled. It always seemed to me that the one's who had it figured out were the ones who enjoyed the game. They loved the process. They did not obsess about being number one but they did enjoy playing.

There is another saying that I have always loved and it is "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear".  Some of are born with genes that make one specific  task within easy grasps. Others of us find those same tasks very desirable but unachievable. It is a mark of maturity to find out which of those tasks are within our reach and which are not.   Michael Jordan rose to the expert level in basketball. The rest of us can shoot and dribble all the days of our lives and never rise to that level.

Of course there are stories of people who have stayed with something for thousands of hours and reached the level of expert or excellence. These stories serve as an inspiration. I would guess there are many more stories of people who have labored at something for thousands of hours and never reached the level of excellence or even successfull.

That doesn't mean they should never have devoted 10,000 hours to some desired task.  But they might feel a lot better about those hours spent if they came to a different understanding of the goal.

Spinoza always talked about happiness being a process or movement of skill, ability, or understanding that was always going from a state of lesser perfection to yet that of a greater. That is where the 10,000 hours lead. If you spend 10,000 hours learning a specific task or skill the pleasure or joy comes from the movement that you will experience. It does not require the stamp of excellence or success.

Spinoza believed that the ultimate goal would be one that you could not achieve. One that would continually run out in front of you. Calling you forward and providing a space for everlasting growth and development. He chose to study philosophy. He believed he could study it all of his life and yet have more to learn on the day he died.

This is the value in the 10,000 hour rule. If you can spend that much time towards learning a particular task or skill it means you are experiencing some success or growth along the way. It's movement; not a labor.  And it brings happiness.

I think about Glen Gould and his refusal to play music in front of an audience. He rejected the applause. He rejected the stage. He constructed a private studio and spent most of his days alone at a keyboard. He was definitely an expert and found his joy or bliss in the process. 

This is Retirement Talk.

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