The Long and Winding Road

Monday night, and I’m watching the Channel 4 news. There’s a story about small music venues closing all over the UK. But I’m only half paying attention, if that.

The reporter mentions the Cockpit in Leeds, a venue that’s hosted any number of famous bands and artists – White Stripes, Kaiser Chiefs, Amy Winehouse among many. We’re closer to home: I pay slightly more attention.

And then along comes James Bay, bemoaning the fact that artists today simply aren’t playing enough hours of live music. “After all,” he says, “The Beatles played 10,000 hours in Hamburg.”


At which point my ears really prick up.

Did the Beatles really play 10,000 hours in Hamburg? If you’re on stage for 50 hours a week, that would take four years – and according to Wiki, they were only in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962.

But it doesn’t matter – because the 10,000 hours myth has received another boost. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell put forward the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. Matthew Syed gave it extra weight in Bounce.

And now, 10,000 hours is accepted corporate wisdom.

Exactly as the Mehrabian Myth once was. Do you remember that? Sitting in a room while some genius at the front told you that 93% of communication is non-verbal. Thirty seconds of thought by an intelligent eight year old would tell you that it can’t possibly be true, but millions of men in suits have lapped it up, very often paying good money to do so. Anyway, here’s 3:30 of YouTube which busts the Mehrabian Myth once and for all and let’s never hear from it again…

…Because now we have the perceived wisdom of 10,000 hours.

Yes, if you do something for 10,000 hours you’ll obviously become very competent. Will you master it, become world class? Almost certainly not.

Consider golf. I remember reading a story about Greg Norman. I’ll paraphrase the quote, but it went along these lines: I’d practice every day. Six or seven hundred balls a day. I’d practice until my hands were bleeding and I couldn’t hold the club any more.

Now I occasionally go to the driving range – and about 100 balls is my limit. But even if I did hit ‘six or seven hundred balls,’ even if I did put it in 10,000 hours, would I master golf? Could I turn pro or – sadly in not that many years – play on the Seniors’ Tour? No, because I don’t have the X-Factor. The show may be going downhill but the name is exactly right: it’s the X-Factor, not 10,000 hours of practice, which sets a world-class performer apart.

The X-Factor is the dedication, the drive, and the sheer bloody-minded will to win. That’s what makes someone practice for 10,000 hours. It isn’t the practice that sets Greg Norman and me apart, it’s the will to win – and a fair sprinkling of natural talent.

I haven’t played golf for 10,000 hours – not yet, anyway – so let’s turn to three things I most certainly have done for 10,000 hours: been a husband, been a parent and been the owner of TAB York.

Have I mastered any of them? No. I’m competent, sometimes I think I might even be quite good, but have I mastered them? No, absolutely not.

A family and a relationship are constantly evolving and changing. You master one level as a parent, your children immediately move on to the next level.

Business is just the same. New clients bring new challenges. Existing clients – and their businesses – develop and change. Different goals emerge, plans and personal circumstances change, different challenges come to the fore.

And yes, the will to win is important in business, but so is the will to go on learning. As Stephen Covey put it, to constantly Sharpen the Saw. That, of course, is where TAB comes in: where the experience and wisdom of your fellow Board members can make such a big difference. After all, there are far, far more than 10,000 hours round that boardroom table



  1. simonjhudson · October 26, 2015

    It’s a good myth to bust, though practice is obviously important, made easier by a degree of natural skill. However I’ve always believed that most people can achieve a decent degree of competence through commitment and application alone. And in many cases competence is all that is needed, you don’t need to be world-class; often it’s enough to be just a little bit better than your competitors, sometimes it’s enough to be just better/braver/more committed than ordinary folk.

    As I thought about the blog this week it occurred to me that there’s 2 types of competitive environment, internally competitive and externally competitive. Things like golf and playing music are internally competitive; there are few external changes that you have to respond to, you’re not really playing against someone and while others may be better at it than you the way they play doesn’t force you to change your game. If you’ve carved out a niche you probably only have to remain good enough to stay there.
    In an externally competitive environment things change around you or even change in response to you. Most competitive sports, whether squash or football, are like this. It’s not enough to maintain your competence, you also have to keep responding to everything else that is going on, either raising or changing your game. And a competitors will then do the same.

    So in business this seems to apply depending on whether your market and competitors are dynamic and compete with you for your business, or you are lucky enough position that you can just keep doing the same thing based on your rare expertise and the effort it takes to stay there.

  2. edreidyork · October 29, 2015

    That’s a really interesting angle on whether competitors are dynamic enough to warrant you being “externally competitive”. Maybe we should always assume there will be dynamic competition and make our moves accordingly

    • simonjhudson · November 2, 2015

      Even in golf you watch the opponent – what they do may not be affecting what you choose to do, but you can always learn from them.

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