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10,000 Hours To Mastery — Or A Good Start

by David Brock on April 14th, 2013

I’m a real fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. One of the most impactful parts of the book is the discussion around what it takes to achieve real mastery of something. Whether you are an orchestral musician, a world class athlete, a high performing doctor, or a sales professional—it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.

Give me a number, it’s something I have to achieve. It’s like quota, I immediately thought, “Have I achieved mastery yet?” Where am I on the 10,000 hour scale? How much longer do I have to go?

Quickly, I pulled out a calculator. I do lots of things, but I estimated, in general, I am working on selling at least 6 hours a day—so I’ll use that as the number. Let’s see, 10,000 divided by 6, that’s 1667 days to achieve mastery. Hmm, that’s not so much. OK, I work roughly 220 days a year, so it should take me about 7 years and 7 months to achieve mastery.

Wow! I must be there! Actually, I’ve been selling for about 30 years, so I must have achieved some kind of 6th degree black belt in Sales Mastery!

After I finished patting myself on the back, reality came crashing in. First, I thought, why do I still struggle with prospecting calls? Why do I still get outsold?

On further reflection, I realize, buyers have changed! How we engage them and win business has changed profoundly in the past 30 years. Competition has changed, there’s much more and different types of competitors. Technology and tools have changed how we sell.

More has changed in professional selling in the past 5 years than in the cumulative history of selling.

So what’s this mean to my mastery and 10000 hours? It seems as though I have to start the clock all over again. I’ve got to forget a bunch of old stuff, learn and master a whole bunch of new stuff. It seems I have a long way to go to achieve mastery!

I went back to re-read Blink and some related books on Mastery. It turns out 10,000 hours is the starting point. It makes sense. I recently had dinner with a professional musician. He played in one of the world’s top symphony orchestra. He had a number of solo or small group albums out. He was renowned for his “mastery” of his craft.

Yet in talking to him, all he focused on was what he didn’t know, the things he hadn’t mastered. He wasn’t focused on where he had come from. He wasn’t paying attention to his current level of mastery. He was focused on the things he needed to master. The things he needed to learn and how he needed to improve.

I asked him where he was on the 10,000 hour scale. He thought, then said he “I think it’s approaching 17,000 hours.

It’s interesting, talk to anyone at the top of their profession. Most are well over 10,000 hours.  Many would acknowledge they are very good—perhaps among the best in their fields, but few call themselves “masters.”

Most of these view mastery as a frame of mind, an attitude, and ongoing journey. All are driven by constantly improving. They are the tops in their fields, they outperform peers by far, yet they are not satisfied. There are the things they haven’t mastered. There are the things that have changed and caused them to shift course, mastering new things.

Are you committed to 10,000 hours of focused practice in sales execution? Are you committed to the next 10,000 hours? If you aren’t you will be passed by. If you rest on whatever you have learned, you will become an antique.

10,000 hours is just the starting point!

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  1. Interesting!

    I too have run the Gladwell 10,000 hours test, and noted that I “passed” it pretty well, but that somehow I still didn’t feel expert.

    You hint at another part of the answer – change.

    As I recall, in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a man set out to write the world’s greatest novel. Since the world’s greatest novel was Don Quixote, he wrote Don Quixote.

    But since the meaning of all the words in old Spanish had changed in the last 500 years, it turned out that the Don Quixote he had written did not mean the same thing as the original Don Quixote by Cervantes. And so, in fact, he had not written the world’s greatest novel. This realization drove him to despair and he killed himself.

    So it is with sales. Even if we hit 10,000 hours, much has changed; so much that our first 10,000 has now changed, and doesn’t mean what it used to. Unlike slapping a hockey puck or hitting a baseball, sales evolves. It’s a moving target.

    We can’t rest on our laurels.

    • Charlie, thanks for the great comment. It’s interesting–things change, so inherently we can never master anything, but we can keep getting better. An interesting paradox is that those who are approaching mastery are the one’s really driving the change that keep them from achieving mastery. Of course they aren’t concerned with that, they aren’t counting the hours.

  2. @David, the book is Outliers and not Blink. There is a small discussion in Blink about sales.

    In Outliers, Gladwell never examined exactly what type of practice lead to mastery.

    Although Gladwell used the words, “deliberate and focussed”, he didn’t tell us anything about how to improve.

    @Charles, I love that Borge’s story. I had forgotten the ending – the words were the same, but the semantic network had changed. Thanks for reminding me.

    It is great story for showing the wisdom and learning obtained by copying, if we are paying deep attention to the words used, and which words were not used.

    • Ditto @Michael. Wrong book. #Fail.

      • Jon, thanks for your contribution to this discussion.

        • @Jon, I pointed out to David & Charles that it was the wrong book, only after I skimmed Blink for 35 minutes. Then, I had to google it.

          So, I also failed.

          @David, yes the entire clerical society was built on the thesis that copying provides wisdom.

          For a modern view of the difficulty of listening to lectures and gaining real knowledge, see Roger Schank’s lecture:, start at 3:22.

          I have only recently started copying texts, and then instantly re-writing them.

          I find it a better way to focus on what the author actually said while at the same time writing about what I want the author to talk about!

          • Michael: The Youtube series is great! I actually liked listening to a number of the commenters and really enjoyed Roger’s. Thanks for the pointer!

            I think there is huge value to copying/rewriting certain texts to help learn and memorize them. We see this as an excellent practice in elementary education–but forget it’s also a great practice in adult education.

            There’s something about the act of committing something to “paper,” that enables us to internalize, think about, and learn. It’s also, why I encourage people to write down plans–whether it’s a business plan, a sales strategy, a call plan, or a few bullets for a “cold call.” There’s something magic about the act of writing that causes us to be more thoughtful, reflective, and to remember.

            To often people focus on the wrong thing–the plan or the output, not the act of planning. That’s where the real learning and value is.

            I have to admit, so often, my blog posts are more for me than the audience. Committing many of my ideas and thoughts to “paper” and the public, helps clarify my thinking and improves my own practice. The great benefit of doing this in blog form is, I get great ideas and feedback from people like you and Charlie!

            Thanks for the great link and for the very thoughtful discussion.

          • David says: “I actually liked listening to a number of the commenters and really enjoyed Roger’s. Thanks for the pointer!”

            You are welcome for the link to Roger Schank’s talk. Very interesting guy.

        • Touché. Good article.

    • Michael, thanks for the correction, I’ve read all his books, and mis-quoted. (I wonder if it means I go into a 5000 hour penalty box). I think the notion of emulating or copying the “masters” is an interesting concept. Certainly, it helps all of us improve our performance. But, as you mention, in copying we must pay deep attention. This is where I see a lot of problem, too few really pay attention, so people copy, but lose the real meaning and intent.

      To often, the words of John Gardner in EXCELLENCE, come to me, “Don’t let form triumph over substance.” Too often, I think those who copy are doing it purely for the form and miss the substance.

      You raise an interesting point, can we have wisdom from copying?

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