If Malcolm Gladwell Played Soccer…

While hundreds of thousands of fans flock to South Africa to watch the World Cup, a more  intimate crowd gathers in Natick, MA to cheer on their hometown soccer teams. Every summer, local companies compete in a friendly yet intense season of soccer. I’m proud to be a part of these humble Tuesday-night games.

I’ve played soccer all my life. Although I’ve dabbled at halfback, I’m a true fullback at heart. As a child, I was excellent. (Yes, that’s me in the picture) However, I gave up soccer in High School in order to run cross country.

During college, a group of friends invited me to play on their intramural team. I enthusiastically agreed. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were all much better than I was. After every game, the emotion I felt more powerfully than the elation of winning or pain of losing was frustration at my own inadequacy. Why were they so much better? Why was I so much worse?

The answer came to me after a particularly devastating loss. They were better because they had practiced.  I was worse because I had not.

Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book Outliers that mastery of any skill requires 10,000 hours. “Gifted” people are generally not much more gifted than anyone else – they have simply invested more time and effort. We can gain virtually any skill we desire if we are willing to dedicate ourselves.

Mastery requires trade-offs. To be excellent at any one thing, you must be willing to be mediocre at something else.

Where are you earning your 10,000 hours? What trade-offs are you making? Is it worth it?

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  • Brig July 5, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    The 10,000 hours is all about picking one thing and going with it. I think most people get a thousand hours here and there on different stuff instead of specializing. Specialists usually are more sought out, paid more, etc.

    But to be honest, I don’t know if specializing is really the way to go. When I was an english major, I saw many people giving their whole lives and 10,000 hours to dead English poetry that no one else read and with no practical application. When I was in advertising I saw people giving their 10,000 hours to lame, selly tv spots whose viewers all considered them a nuisance and tivo’d them if they could.

    So Great Pragmatic Derek, is soccer really worth 10,000 hours? What is worth 10,000 hours? I constantly worry that when I finally reach the top of my ladder I will find out that it’s leaning against the wrong wall. What is a truly worthy cause to sink 10,000 hours into?

  • Derek July 6, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Thank you for your comment. It got my mind thinking. This is my somewhat jumbled response:

    “Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” – Unknown

    Yo-Yo Ma dedicated over 10,000 hours to become the world’s best cellist. Here are some other categories he could have chosen:

    Orchestral Instruments
    String Instruments
    Classical Cello
    Cello for Antonio Vivaldi’s works
    Cello for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
    Cello for “Spring”

    Clearly, some categories are too broad and others too narrow. Cello is just right. Yo-Yo Ma is a specialist, but is not so narrowly-focused as to be irrelevant.

    I once heard of a dean of an English department at a prominent university whose expertise is Wordsworth’s use of commas. That is, in my opinion, an example of knowing “more and more about less and less”.

    This past weekend I finished reading Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferazzi. It’s a book about networking and relationship management. While it’s full of great advice, it would be a full-time job to do everything he recommends. He has spent his 10,000 hours networking.

    Your quasi-hypothetical question was “What is truly a worthy cause to sink 10,000 hours into?”. My knee-jerk reaction was to say that any cause would do – being a specialist in anything would distinguish you sufficiently to be profitable. Very few people actually become experts at anything.

    Then I thought about several friends of mine who, after graduation from university, realized they had earned degrees in majors that were virtually useless. I guess you truly can get to the top of the ladder and realize that your ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.

    My personal philosophy has always been to make decisions which would open doors and opportunities to me in the future. Pay close attention to the doors that your decisions close and to those they open.

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  • Jules October 19, 2010 at 9:51 am

    “My personal philosophy has always been to make decisions which would open doors and opportunities to me in the future. Pay close attention to the doors that your decisions close and to those they open.”

    Love this philosophy. Each decision we make in life open and close different doors. I also like how you broadened the categories to show how Yo Yo Ma is in many fields and not just cello. I am going to go through my life now and figure out what other specializations I have/ want other than my job.
    Thanks for your insight.

  • Austin January 29, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    I believe I am building toward 10,000 hours in visual art, but I was given a head start. You mention that some people are better than others at certain things because “they have simply invested more time and effort.” I would argue that this is true…sometimes. I am innately gifted at drawing and painting. I first started sketching when I was about 8 years old. At the time I was extremely interested in recreating the natural world around me on paper. I was obsessed with animals and all of the unique forms and colors they had. I didn’t realize this until I looked back at some of my old stuff, but I could create more accurate sketches of things when I was 8 than most of my art friends could in college with all of their years of training.

    Being “good” at something could be divided into two categories, skills and abilities. Abilities are the things you are born with and are innately good at, while skills are things you work at to develop and later become good at. Now both require some upkeep, but those who have a natural ability to play soccer, start with an automatic several thousand hours already invested in being good at soccer, while others may have to start from 0.

    I think it is worth it to invest hours in something I was born good at, but I do agree with Brig that you have to be careful what you invest your time in. I have a lot of interests, but I obviously can not invest 10,000 hours in them all. I can invest maybe 500 hours into quite a few though.

    I leave you with this:
    “Jack of all trades, master of none,
    Often times better than a master of one” -Unknown