Outliers and Frugality

About a year and a half ago, I reviewed Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book Outliers. In that review, I talked about one of Gladwell’s key points in the book, that a great deal of practice will make a person good at anything:

The more important (and interesting) part of the chapter, though, discusses the huge role that nearly-obsessive practice plays in making people great. Gladwell uses The Beatles and Bill Gates as examples here, showing how they both were able to take advantage of stupendous amounts of practice time to become very, very good at what they did. In each case, Gladwell estimated that it took 10,000 hours of practice for those individuals to hone their natural raw talents and become world class – roughly ten years of multiple hours of practice (3 or so on average) every single day. Gladwell offers many other examples of how this practice pays off, but that magic number of 10,000 hours pops up again and again.

10,000 hours of practice? That seems like an incredible amount of time invested in something. I tried to think of the people in my life who have ever put 10,000 hours of practice into anything in their life.

I have probably spent 10,000 hours writing over the past twenty years – and currently I’m making a living as a writer. The skill I’ve cultivated isn’t that of writing some sort of great work of fiction or nonfiction, but the ability to express ideas and produce a lot of solid writing very quickly. I can usually sit down with an idea and crank out something workable almost as fast as I can type – in fact, the vast majority of my work is coming up with ideas and filtering the ideas I do come up with.

I know two musicians who have likely invested 10,000 hours in practicing their instrument over their lifetime. One of them earns a solid side income from her piano playing – the other one makes a full living from offering lessons.

My father has spent 10,000 hours (at least) fishing in his life. He is just unbelievably capable of catching fish and has forgotten more solid techniques and tips than I’ll ever remember. He’s similarly spent that kind of time in his garden and manages to make (literally) acres of bountiful vegetable gardens look practically effortless.

What’s the point of all of this?

The point is that the only real cost for these people to gain the kind of skill that they can use to make a living was time. The actual cost per hour that they spent doing these things that they love was really, really low.

Take the second musician I mention above, a piano teacher. She got her start playing piano by banging on a neighbor’s piano as a young girl and began to discover that she really enjoyed playing. It became her primary hobby. She got an old piano as a gift when she was in middle school and purchased a $400 used piano herself as an adult. She guesses she’s spent $200 on sheet music over her life and maybe $250 on piano repairs. Add that up and you get $1,000. In other words, she’s invested only ten cents per hour in her life playing piano, doing something she loved, and she wound up with a skill that she’s earning a living from.

Every person I mention above has a similar story. Once they found the thing they loved doing, they just stuck with doing it, investing hours each day into the hobby, and the end result was a cost per hour measured in the pennies. What did they get out of it? Many, many hours spent doing what they love and a skill so refined that they could earn a living from it if they so chose.

Many people are highly eclectic in their hobbies, but there’s a huge cost associated with that. For starters, most hobbies you undertake have a startup cost and a maintenance cost. If you have ten hobbies, then there are ten startup costs and ten maintenance costs.

A much better approach is to dabble until you find a hobby or two that deeply resonates with you. Not only are you reducing your hobby costs, you’re focusing in on a smaller set of hobbies and are likely to become more skilled at those hobbies.

This is something I’m really starting to discover in my own life, mostly due to the piano lessons I’ve started taking. I’ve slowly been stripping away hobbies in my life over the past few years, leaving me with just a small handful. What I’ve found isn’t boredom – in fact, it’s the opposite.

I now feel like I have the ability to really dig deep into the hobbies I have remaining. The more time I spend playing the piano, for example, the more I enjoy it. The keys feel more natural to my fingers. My fingers aren’t stumbling over themselves (as much). My ability to sight-read music is getting stronger and stronger. I can play a couple simple songs from memory and can tackle quite a bit of simple music that’s in front of me. I’m getting better and I’m enjoying every second of it.

Spend some time asking yourself what hobbies you have – and which hobbies you could afford to trim from your routine. You have a garden, but are you really passionate about it? Pare some of the things you’re less passionate about out of your life to make room for things that you’re more passionate about.

What happens then? You spend less on your hobbies. You get to dig deeper into the ones you care about. Best of all, you open yourself up to the possibility of building a skill set that you can base a second career on, one deeply in line with what you care about the most.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.