5 keys to mastering anything

Getting to the top requires dedication and discipline

In his book,“Outliers: The Story of Success” Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule. In short it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something. If you do a google search on “10,000” and “learning” you will literally pull back 108 million results the first several pages of which (That’s all I looked at. It pays to SEO.) are all dedicated to developing and mastering specific skills. For executives, leaders and anyone interested in their personal performance this may either be daunting or re-assuring.

For example if you are thinking of it in terms of further developing your domain expertise and you are using it 30 hours a week. You can get to this level of mastery in less than 7 years. It is a little more disconcerting though if you think about it in terms of the implications this may have for something that you are only working on for one hour a day. Get ready to spend the next 40 years on the path to mastery.

I am an absolute believer in the fact that real mastery takes time. I don’t know that 10,000 hours is the number, anymore than any other number that would take significant time and effort to reach. I’m also sure that some folks can get there faster than others based on talent and other factors like the complexity of the skill under development. Whatever the number is I think the following five things should be of interest to anyone who is interested in continually improving their performance and attempting to achieve mastery of a particular skill or set of skills:

  1. Accept failure. Recognize that for anything you find important enough to attempt to develop mastery in you should recognize that it will take you awhile to get good at it. This is important because I don’t think most people are not accepting enough of failure when they take on skill building. If you are attempting to improve your ability to speak in public you have to recognize that you are not going to be able to deliver a speech like one a polished politician can give at the peak of his career. Failure is inevitable and part of the learning process. Embrace it.
  2. Be selective. Remember that there are no free lunches, for most people adding a new skill means limiting skill building in other areas. Choose wisely. Dedicating an hour a day over 40 years to learning the harmonica may enable you to master playing, but does it help you achieve your objectives? I think way to many people miss mastery of their core skills in a miss-guided attempt to be well rounded or at least they shouldn’t be surprised when they end up as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be well rounded, I’m just saying that choosing too many things to focus on necessarily dilutes the mastery of any one.
  3. Absolute dedication. According to the simple calculation above and our reference material at an hour a day it takes about 40 years to get to a real level of mastery of a particular skill. This means that you absolutely cannot afford to miss time or get distracted. Consistency is king. This has gotten easier for me over time as I have gotten to see the fruits of my labor. Things that I have diligently worked on over the course of several years have become easier and my skill level greatly improved. This has provided me with the positive feedback necessary to look past early failure in the path to the mastery of new skills.
  4. Think big picture and portfolio. I have a relatively small portfolio of things I am dedicated to mastering over the next 40 years that is centered on my personal goals with an eye to where I want to be in the long term. Once again mastering the harmonica may be something you want to achieve because of the joy it brings to friends and family on the holidays. Just recognize that every choice to do something is also an explicit choice not to do many other things. Make sure you are making those decisions based on real and long-term value and that they knit together to form a portfolio that will help you achieve your larger goals and objectives.
  5. Write things down. I have taken the time to explicitly name the things I am trying to master. It sounds cheesy but I have a real (and short) list of things I’m trying to master. This helps you keep things realistic. You simply cannot master 50 things. There is simply not enough time and in the end you are choosing mediocrity and dooming yourself to be disappointed if you are shooting for mastery across too many areas. Again, please don’t take this as a slight towards being well rounded. I’m simply saying you should make an explicit choice to be well rounded over specific skill mastery. Don’t just let it happen because you can’t stay focused on any one thing.

In conclusion I think the factors above are part of an approach that can help you successfully master specific skills, however I also think it pays to be realistic. Choose things that make sense given your understanding of your talents, the complexity of the skill set and their relative value to you. On the first point I say that recognizing personal limitations is difficult and requires some real soul searching at times. I also think you should be realistic about how complex the skill building effort you are attempting is and set your expectation of the 10,000 hour rule accordingly. The difference between the actual time to a relative level of mastery of something like golf or chess is probably different than something like horseshoes or hopscotch. Finally, I can’t say enough about how important it is to be focused on things that really matter to you both now and in the long term. As I’ve gotten older I’ve really begun to recognize just how valuable time really is and wish I could have back the many hours I dedicated to Sonic the Hedgehog and Solitaire. Maybe if I’d spent that time working on playing the piano like my mom wanted I’d be able to carry off Jingle Bells at the holiday party this year. On second thought maybe Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t such a bad choice.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great advice, Joshua. This post gave me food for thought on where I might want to focus my time. I tend to get going in several directions as there are so many great opportunities to pursue, but there seems to be greater satisfaction in moving toward mastery of something – a stronger sense of accomplishment and contribution.

Cat Robinson

Insightful post. I think a roadblock to mastery in the past for me as been admitting the preciousness of time and the inability to “do it all.”Though as I get older I see the value, more and more, of choosing and then following through.

Joshua Millsapps

I think when most people are younger it is hard to admit that you might not be able to do it all. I know that for myself limiting what I take on has enabled to be more successful in those fewer things. I know that I still often take on too many things but I think I realize when I’ve over extended myself earlier. Thanks for the feedback.

Henry Brown

Took a significant amount of pride in my 40+years with the government that the best solution for ME was to become a master of none and a jack of all. And to use my leadership/communication skills, which I would like to think were good but definitly not the best, to get the “Masters” on the numerous subjects (IT hardware repair, IT programming, IT administration, IT security analysis amongst others) to support the organization mission as a key players.

Joshua Millsapps

Harry – I couldn’t agree more with the value of having folks that are focused on having a well rounded body of knowledge to pair with SMEs that are focused on mastering specific subject areas. Mastery is a pretty subjective descriptor anyway. For me the real value in the concept of something like 10,000 hours to mastery is it puts things I should probably should not be wasting time on in perspective, i.e video games, reality TV, etc.

Gordon Lee Salmon

Joshua thanks for your crisp focus on the essentials of mastery. Years ago when I was studying the martial art of Aikido I ran across a small book called “Mastery” by George Leonard, himself an Aikido master. This book is still today a classic for anyone serious about attaining mastery in anything. As an executive coach I share it with many of my clients who want to be masters at the top of their game.