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Advice on Proficiency from James Altucher

December 2, 2011

I enjoyed this recent post from James Altucher’s web page:

http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2011/11/how-to-be-the-best-at-anything-you-want-to-do/

He’s talking about the ‘10,000 hour’ theory that says this is the number of hours one needs to spend to gain mastery. This makes a lot of sense to me, but as Altucher points out, most of us don’t need to achieve mastery, we just need to be highly proficient. Here’s his approach to getting to that point in only 5,000 hours!

Let’s go back to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers” for a second. To guarantee being among the best in the world at something you pretty much need 10,000 hours of practice as per his “10,000 hour rule”. He cites the Beatles as an example. They were basically average, then they put in their 10,000 hours by playing 24 hours a day for a few years in German strip clubs and then they became the best band in history. You can argue Bobby Fischer was a fairly average chessplayer until he put in his 10,000 hours. Then he was the best in history. My friend Ylon made nothing in poker for ten years then suddenly made $3 million and was among the best in the world. He put in his 10,000 hours. (See, “My Year Where I Did Nothing But Play Poker”)

You don’t have to be the best in history to be above average. But most things that are worth doing (being an entrepreneur, amassing a good amount of money as a result) have a very steep learning curve and then it flattens out. So maybe 1000 hours gets you better than most people (above average) and then the next 2000-5000 hours gets you the be the best in your circle of colleagues (i.e. good enough to make a great living at it) and then from 5000-10,000 hours is the subtle refinements that are needed to be the best in the world.

They require 5000 hours precisely because they are unobvious and subtle.

But that’s ok. Who cares about the other 5000 hours. It’s the first 2000-5000 hours that are the most important. We need to feed our families and then be able to enjoy life. Not everyone needs to be the Beatles (who, its unclear if they were ever truly happy) or Steve Jobs (who was screaming on the phone at Eric Schmidt months before his death about how much he was going to sue Google for stealing the Android operating system). (See also, “10 Unusual Things I Didn’t Know About Steve Jobs”)

Based on my own experience being an entrepreneur and talking to 100s of other entrepreneurs, 2000-5000 hours experience is what’s needed to be a successful entrepreneur. Successful enough to build a product people want, get revenues, sell the business.

It’s nice to have the 2000-5000 hours in your passion or field of interest and then spend the next 10,000 hours focusing on how to be happy and healthy. This is my recommendation at least.

What do you do during those 5000 hours. How do you get better at something? If you are doing any of the below then you have my permission to clock in on the 5000 hours, but I think the below have to be done with balance. You can’t do one without the others:

Experience. The Beatles would never have gotten good if they just read books about music. Tiger Woods started swinging the club (i’m being literal) when he was three, etc. If you want to be an entrepreneur, starting come up with ideas now, ideas that are doable with limited resources, start doing them, start selling them to customers, investors, acquirers. Just start.
Self-analysis. Thinking about what you are doing and coming to logical conclusions about how to be better. For instance, in poker, reviewing the hands you played that day and thinking of ways you could’ve played them differently.
Tutor/Mentor. Every great chessplayer has had a teacher. I don’t really think there are any exceptions to this. That probably goes for most games, sports, or anything that’s difficult to get good at (racecar driving, etc). Most entrepreneurs I know have had mentors. For myself, I worked at a big corporation before I was an entrepreneur. The corporation: HBO / TIme Warner, is one of the best-run mega-corporations out there. The corporation itself was my business mentor (“corporations are people, my friend” – Mitt Romney). I’ve also spent a lot of time with one of the best unsung businessmen in history.
History. The Beatles clearly studied the music of Elvis. They probably also studied jazz from the 20s. My guess is they also studied the art of the fugue from Bach. Bobby Fischer once disappeared for a year (as a 13 year old) and studied every game played in the 1800s. When he resurfaced he had subtle improvements on obscure chess openings (the Latvian Gambit, for instance) that were last seen at high-level play in the 1800s. A great example of his knowledge of the history of chess is how he secured a draw in the last game of the Fischer-Spassky match when he transposed a complicated very modern Sicilian Defense into an old, drawish Scotch Gambit to secure the draw and win the match.
Talking. Associating with not just tutors but other serious students of the field you are interested in is a good way to exchange ideas, synthesize the ideas you have about the field you are in with the ideas you have, mate them, and come up with new ideas that neither of you would’ve thought on your own. The collaboration between Lennon and McCartney being a great example of this. The collaboration between Brin and Page being a modern entrepreneurial version of this. (See, “Why is Larry Page different than me and why didn’t Google buy my company?”)

Failure. Learning from your accidents (“I will no longer drive through a Stop sign”) catapults you through the learning curve very quickly. My kids often give up instantly when they lose at something. That’s ok. They just aren’t interested. But once you find something where you pick yourself up and you say, “I HAVE TO DO BETTER” next time. THEN you know you are onto something – a passion, a dream, the field where you can become a grandmaster, the field where you can become an entrepreneur. It’s a secret you learn about yourself and you can be privately proud that at last you have found the area where very few people will be able to compete. 99% of people give up after a failure in a field. It’s the best filter that will tell you you will eventually succeed. Then, once you fail and want to learn from it – go to #2 above – Self-Analysis, and begin anew.
Explore. How do you get to be a great computer scientist? Study biology. How do you get to be a great investor? Study music. Ideas mate with each other and then evolution will get rid of the deformed offspring and keep the offspring that quickly adapt to the new generation of trials. The only way to have those offspring in your hands is to fully explore brand new fields and make the connections, correlations, causations between the field of your interest and the new field you are studying. I would like to get good at meditation, for instance. What I have found recently is that studying quantum mechanics provides unbelievable insights that I would not have dreamed of. Or being a good daily blogger – I found that studying the insights of Charlie Brown has been immensely helpful.
Balance – In the post, the Nine Ways to Guarantee Success,  I list nine things that could get in the way of success for entrepreneurs but it really applies to any endeavor. Avoiding the nine obstacles of: sickness, doubt, vacillating, etc

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