Swinging for the Fences or Settling for a Single

Several different books I’ve read in the last few years – Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers being one – have argued that the best way (without an inherent genetic advantage) to become an “outlier” in a particular skill is to practice a tremendous amount. The number often used is 10,000 hours of practice.

If you divide that up, you can figure that three hours a day of practice every single day for ten years will get you in the ballpark of the level of practice you’d need.

No matter how you slice it, that takes a tremendous amount of focus and dedication over a long period of time. If you put aside three hours each and every day to building a skill, in ten years, you’ll have an exceptional skill, one that at least has the possibility of opening professional doors for you and opening the door to a lot of money.

This idea is often used in the context of exceptional athletes, musicians, and artists. They’re used as examples because you can clearly see how incredible amounts of practice translates into an easy-to-see world class skill. The Beatles playing obsessively in the bars of Hamburg. Kobe Bryant requiring himself to make 1,000 baskets each and every day. You get the idea.

Of course, even an exceptional skill isn’t a guarantee of a “home run” in life. There are many examples of exceptionally skilled people who fell through the cracks in life. For every Michael Jordan, there are twenty Lenny Cookes.

On the other hand, developing a well-rounded skill set full of transferable skills means that you have the tools to succeed at a moderate level in a lot of different situations. Knowing how to manage time well, manage information well, and how to communicate well are all useful skills. Study skills not only help you get good grades in college, but they also help you rapidly absorb information in the workplace.

These skills are useful, but they’re not “outlier” skills. They give you a good chance at good earnings but a small chance at exceptional earnings. On the other hand, building an “outlier” skill increases your chance at exceptional earnings, but decreases your chances at merely good earnings because you’ve spent your time building that one skill, not building all of the other elements of a well-rounded resume and skill set.

Of course, this isn’t purely an either-or choice, but it helps a person decide how to use their time.

This brings me back to my own life. Right now, I’m the parent of three young children. Most afternoons, I have a few hours with my children where I have a lot of influence on how they spend their time. If I exhibit enthusiasm and guidance, they’ll dive into pretty much anything.

Am I better off urging them to build an exceptional skill that will make them an “outlier” in something marketable? Or am I better off helping them build a more diverse set of transferable skills?

After a lot of thought, I don’t think it’s an either-or answer. I’ve realized that the key behind both of these routes is self-discipline. If they have self-discipline, they’ll have the tools to become “outliers” if they so choose, but they’ll also have the fundamental skill they need to succeed reasonably well at anything they try.

How can I do that?

I can reward self-discipline and effort, not necessarily results. It’s far more important that they worked hard to earn a B than that they effortlessly earned an A, for example. When I give out compliments and other rewards, those rewards should center on the process that will inevitably produce good results, not the results themselves.

I can encourage activities that encourage self-discipline. In other words, I don’t steer them toward being an “outlier,” but I encourage them to try out things that naturally encourage self-discipline, like martial arts, music lessons, and so on.

I can establish normal daily routines and stick to them. A normal routine of activities during a day and during a week establishes that it’s the routine efforts that build success at whatever you try. We can work together to shape that routine, but we’ll stick with it as a family.

My goal as a parent is for my children to have the tools they need to make themselves independent and successful. I don’t need them to be superstars. I just need them to know how to build a successful life, whatever they choose that to be.

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