A very wise mentor once told me, “If you put in the time, you can’t help but get better. There is no way around it; perfection comes from repetition.”

This advice gives rise to several important personal reflections and perhaps more than a few regrets. They are all integrated by a central theme: time, a quantity measuring duration, one that is absolute and utterly indifferent to you and me. We can’t change time, but we can leverage it and appreciate it.

I think the best contemporary work I’ve read in relation to the effects and dynamics of time is Malcolm Gladwell’s. In his book “Outliers,” he described what came to be known as the 10,000-Hour Rule. By researching eminently successful people in the areas of music, athletics and industry, he found a correlation not to intelligence or ambition but to time on task. It takes 10,000 hours as a practitioner to reach significant mastery. Elite performers (including Tiger Woods, Bill Gates and even the Beatles) spent their time on task – and they spent it early! Ten-thousand hours would average some 90 minutes a day over 20 years. Elite performers get it done far, far sooner.

What does this rule have to do with my mentor’s simple truth of “you can’t help but get better”? I take away a couple of lessons on process here. First, it makes me think about where I am in relation to the river of time and the 10,000-hour rule. In my professional practice, I have my 10,000 hours and tens of thousands more. On the guitar or beginning to play soccer at 45, not only am I shy of the requisite 10,000 hours, but, given my age and life expectancy, I’ll never get them!

There, I’ve said it: I’ll never play music as well as Segovia or soccer like Messi.

A second lesson, based on my coaching and teaching practice, is that some of us want 10,000 hours of mastery from only 1,000 hours of practice. It’s a rush to success that perhaps we all suffer from. We’re kidding ourselves, but there is a silver lining: No matter where we are on the timeline, we can enjoy growth. The icing on the cake is that with more time applied to an instrument, to a sport or to whatever professional process we aspire to, we can’t help but get better with every minute of time we invest. Repetition is requisite to mastery, and we grow with every rep.

Let’s do something different; we can’t help but get better:

  1. Do the math. Consider one competency that you have developed well. Consider and communicate to others how much time on task you already have invested. Reach back to someone behind you on the same path.
  2. Set a target. Pick another competency you’re not yet known for. Articulate in writing how you will reach the repetitions you need for full mastery. Set a target date for it; no matter how long it takes, you will get better with each day.
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