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Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. His newest book, Talking to Strangers[…]
As Malcolm Gladwell – author of numerous New York Times bestselling books – points out, mastery and popularity are sometimes linked, but often they are not. If your goal is to become masterful at what you do, the formula is really quite simple: stay focused and do your time. This is the theory behind the 10,000 Hours Rule that Gladwell made famous. Worrying about whether you’re being recognized for your efforts, i.e. popularity, is a product of the ego, not to mention a distraction. . . . So get over yourself and get to work! In this lesson, Gladwell teaches you how.
7 min

If your goal is to become masterful at what you do, the formula is simple: stay focused and do your time. In this lesson from Big Think+, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell teaches you how.

The kind of notion that geniuses, people who are extraordinarily good, invariably have put in an extraordinary amount of effort, this notion of the 10,000 hour rule, that anyone who has mastered a cognitively complex field has almost always put in this extraordinary level of practice first -- So that says, in order to be good at what you do, you need to be obsessive in your preparation. But that is a very separate issue from what makes somebody popular. So mastery is one thing; success and popularity are another. They are sometimes linked, but often they’re not.

Don't sit around waiting to be recognized.

Clive Davis, one of the greatest music executives of all time, the guy who discovered so many artists, when he was hiring someone, A&R people, he would say to them, he would ask them to bring in five songs that they thought should be hits, but weren’t, and if he agreed with them, if he heard those five songs and said, “You’re right, that should have been a hit,” he’d hire the person. But implicit in that notion was that the universe of songs that could have been hits was way greater than the universe of songs that were hits. In other words, he thought there was lots of stuff out there he thought was fantastic that never saw the light of day. And that’s, to me, there is a lot of truth in that, that we- that popularity is only a tiny fraction of the universe of things that are great.

Check your inner critic: get clear on what failure really is.

Choking is the kind of failure that results from thinking too much, so I know what to do and I've in fact, I know I've mastered a task so well that I do it without thinking. I hit a tennis ball, I'm a great tennis player. When I hit my forehand I don’t even think about it, I just hit my forehand, but then I'm at match point against this ferocious competitor and all the pressure in the world is on me and all the sudden when I go to hit my forehand I think about it, right, and that sort of takes me out of that unconscious zone that is necessary for excellence and I fail and we see it again and again with athletes. With the game on the line in basketball and you’re doing the foul shot, all the sudden something you’ve done a thousand times in your life you kind of unconsciously you think about every single moment of it and you can’t do it that way.

Panicking is the opposite. It’s the kind of failure that comes from an absence of knowledge. I'm in a tight spot and I don’t know what to do. I've never practiced it. I've never been - I’m driving down the road and my car slips on the ice and I have absolutely no clue about how to correct a slide, never happened to me before. I'm 17 years-old. What happens? I panic.

So those are at opposite ends of the spectrum of failure. One is the kind of failure that afflicts people who are good at what they do and the other is the kind of failure that afflicts people who are inexperienced, who are not good at what they do. And sometimes I think we conflate these two things and we accuse the person who chokes of being a novice, of not having prepared, but in fact, no, no, no, they’re prepared. In fact, they’re prepared so well that for a particular kind of activity that when they’re outside of that kind of unconscious zone they’re lost, whereas the person who is panicking they are actually, they can be accused of a lack of preparation. They haven’t done the necessary, gone through the necessary training and experience to be able to handle this sort of tight situation. So I think that one is a kind of choking, it’s honorable failure and panicking is dishonorable failure. And I think it’s important to maintain a bright line between those two things.

Take responsibility for that which you can control; forgive yourself for that which you can't.

Panic is the responsibility of the actor. If you get up to give a speech and you’re overcome with stage fright and you can’t do it, that’s panic and that is your fault. You didn’t practice enough. You didn’t take it seriously. You didn’t take steps to address your stage fright before you got up onstage. You probably knew that you found public speaking terrifying yet you chose to kind of ignore or not take that possibility seriously.

Choking is very different. When I watch an athlete in a moment of pressure miss a putt or double fault on a serve I understand that they may have practiced as much as anyone in the world, but they were in this kind of surreal situation that you really can’t prepare for. You can’t prepare for the 18th hole of Sunday at The Masters. You can’t prepare for your first Wimbledon final. There is no- you can’t practice that, so there is that case where we need be more forgiving and that is when we say- when we look at a sport team that chokes its first two times in the final we say you know what, they need experience and they’ll be back and they’ll do better the next time. Michael Jordan’s Bulls failed for years before they succeeded because it takes awhile to accumulate those kinds of extreme experiences and prepare yourself for them. The same cannot be said of panicking, which is much more of a kind of everyday sort of failure.

Find a supportive learning community.

A lot of learning arises out of sharing, of being in environments where you’re surrounded by like-minded people who inspire you and push you and such. Individual creativity and productive collaboration, those two things go hand in hand.