April 28, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 14: The 10,000-hour rule, systems vs goals, and cumulative thinking

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. The 10,000-hour rule

“‘The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything,’ writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin. ‘In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.’” ― From Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

"Such studies" refer to a 1990 study by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues at Berlin's elite Academy of Music. According to the study, violinists from the academy were divided into three groups: the stars, the good, and the average. The study found that the stars practiced disproportionally more than the other two groups. There's nothing too illuminating about that finding. However, what is perhaps more interesting is that the study did not uncover any 'naturals,' musicians who could coast to the top while practicing a fraction of the time of their peers. Nor did the researchers find any 'grinds', those who worked harder than the rest but failed to reach the top. Practice is what distinguishes the best from the rest. This may sound self-evident, but the study helps to provide a counterargument to the talent hypothesis, the idea that a skill is acquired through innate ability rather than practice. Genes do play a role, but as physician Gabor Maté notes, "genes can predispose, but they don't predetermine". While some may have a predisposition to absorbing skills faster than average, no one is world-class without training.

Not all practice is equal of course. The formula for excellence is more complex than 10,000 hours + skill = mastery. It must be the 'right' kind of practice, which is why the value of mentors remains despite the vast availability of online resources.

2. Cumulative thinking

“Our minds do not disclose their more elaborate and best thoughts in one go. The mind is an intermittent instrument whose ideas come out in dribs and drabs. It is capable of a few inspired moves, then falls silent and needs to rest and to lie fallow for bewilderingly long periods. We cannot think for two hours at a stretch, let alone an entire day. The mind can’t neatly follow office hours. One paragraph might be the work of a morning; an entire book of three slow years. We tend to miss this when we encounter the thoughts of others. Because they frequently sound so composed and can be digested in an effortless stretch, we too readily imagine that these thoughts emerged in a coherent burst. We forget that a lakeful of ideas had to be pooled together with painful effort from spoonfuls of thinking arduously collected over long days and nights.” ― From How to Think More Effectively by The School of Life

The ideation process requires discovering, unraveling and sequencing a series of threads of thought. The discovery stage often takes place in the mind, while the unraveling and sequencing are best externalized in words.

Writing is the most effective vehicle to clarify our thinking because it lays our ideas bare. The naked beauty of our thoughts allows us to see through their veil of obscurity to find their flaws. Often, we think we understand something until we put pen to paper and realize how faulty our reasoning is. William Zinsser captured this best when he said:

“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”

Writing is a powerful tool for clarifying our thinking, but it extends beyond the mere organization of the mind. We can grow ideas over time by revisiting them, nurturing them like a garden until they bear fruit. This concept applies to mediums beyond writing, but words are the seeds of all ideas, even if only in the mind.

We may view an author's work as if they produce only polished prose, but a peek at their manuscripts may reveal a different story. A finished work is often the culmination of years of planning, pruning, and cultivating an entanglement of ideas into a formulation of words. How to Think More Effectively summarizes this process well by stating:

"We are all incapable of bringing the best of ourselves to the fore in any compact span of time. No single moment offers us the opportunity to consider an idea with complete adequacy or from a sufficient number of angles. We need time to pass so that we can return with a mindset imbued with multiple qualities."

Practical Advice

1. Systems vs goals

“The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

​“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

​“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do.” ― From How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

Stephen King is one of the world's most successful writers. What's his secret? He writes six pages a day, taking 3 to 4 hours. But he does it every day. King keeps the compounding power accumulating by never taking breaks or deviating from his routine. This system has enabled him to write 48 fiction books in 63 years, averaging 0.7 novels a year since 1974. If we include collections, non-fiction, screenplays and short stories, that average increases to 2.4.

This systematic approach emphasizes inputs over outputs. Instead of focusing on writing a novel (a goal), King focuses on writing six pages a day (a system). The goal is the natural outcome of successfully and consistently operating his system.

2. You don’t always need an answer

“When a friend says something interesting to me, I usually don’t have a reaction until much later. When someone asks me a deep question, I say, ‘Hmm. I don’t know.’ The next day, I have an answer. I’m a disappointing person to try to debate or attack. I just have nothing to say in the moment, except maybe, 'Good point.' Then a few days later, after thinking about it a lot, I have a response. This probably makes me look stupid in the moment, but I don’t mind. I’m not trying to win any debates.

“In fact, I’ll tell you a secret. When someone wants to interview me for their show, I ask them to send me some questions a week in advance. I spend hours writing down answers from different perspectives, before choosing the most interesting one. Then when we’re in a live conversation, I try to make my answers sound spontaneous.

“People say that your first reaction is the most honest, but I disagree. Your first reaction is usually outdated. Either it’s an answer you came up with long ago and now use instead of thinking, or it’s a knee-jerk emotional response to something in your past. When you’re less impulsive and more deliberate like this, it can be a little inconvenient for other people, but that’s OK. Someone asks you a question. You don’t need to answer. You can say, ‘I don’t know,’ and take your time to answer after thinking. Things happen. Someone expects you to respond. But you can say, ‘We’ll see.’ And maybe, through example, you can show them that they can do the same.” ― From Hell Yeah or No by Derek Sivers

There’s a tendency to speak the first thought that enters our heads in conversation. Perhaps someone asks our opinion on the climate crisis, and we give a vague response based on what we could remember at the time.

Our answers could vary depending on the amount of sleep we got the night before, hydration levels, or any stressors tugging at the corners of our attention. This often leaves us correcting the conversation in our heads later that day and changing our answers as new information permeates our minds.

Much of this is because no single moment can provide us access to all the information we need. Our recall ability is always lacking, and we rarely share the same answer in the moment as we would after even 15 minutes of critical thinking. Therefore, it's often helpful to think of conversation as a sandbox to explore ideas instead of the traditional exchange of statements.​

Quotes to Ponder

1. Confucius on cultivating oneself before trying to improve others:

"Don't complain about the snow on your neighbor's roof when your own doorstep is unclean."

2. Voltaire on the power of continuous consideration:

"No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."

​Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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