Wednesday Jul 15, 2009

10,000 Hours



According to Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book, Outlier, 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become really good at something. Or at least to be considered experienced.

Hmmm. Persistence, it seems, pays. So as I sat aboard a long Air Canada flight this week, I was inspired to put together my own list of things that I quit before reaching the state of experienced expertise.

Waterskiing. As a young woman, I tried doing this sport a lot. I was dragged through the water in Sarasota, Florida, drinking more salt water than I really wanted. I was dragged through the water at Georgetown Lake in Montana, freezing my butt off. I was dragged through the water at Flathead Lake in Montana, embarrassing myself in front of my more athletic in-laws. One day I had a revelation: I don’t have to do this. No one was holding a gun to my head. (Unless you count hours of harassment by my spouse’s family.) Nope, didn’t get in my 10,000 hours there. On the other hand, I stopped drinking gallons of unfiltered lake water, likely avoiding a parasite infestation. Perhaps.

Skiing. Is there a pattern here? Something to do with strapping long boards onto your feet? I think snow skiing is even scarier than waterskiing because I find water friendly (I’m a good swimmer) but consider ice-covered steep mountain slopes terrifying. However, as a new bride married to a Montana boy, I was a good sport and tried ever so hard to learn to how to slalom down those hills. A couple of problems. First, the ski lift. While I was pretty good at the rope tow (hey, my cat would be good at the rope tow – no talent or practice required there – just stick your claws in and hang on), the lifts always struck fear in my heart. Yes, I could get on. No, I didn’t fall off. But exiting? Do you know you’re supposed to jump gracefully from the ski lift at the top of the mountain and ski without poles to the landing area? Are you joking?? I fell more often than not. But I was still game until the day I was heading downhill and found myself going too fast and unable to stop. I crashed into a group of hapless skiers at the bottom of the hill. No one was injured. And it being Montana rather than California, no one sued me. But I was done. I might have gotten 100 hours of skiing in but I couldn’t risk anyone else’s life by going for my 10,000.

PTA parent. Before I made the wise decision to go back to work and practice my wit with those better equipped at handling my biting edge, I spent a number of years as a stay-at-home mom (something my children have NO memory of. Not that I’m bitter). I tried so hard to fit in with the other moms. I went to PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meetings like a good parent. I tried to be attentive. I volunteered. I donated time and money. But I found so many parents ridiculously over-focused on whether or not their little first grade genius (90 percent of parents believe their child is above average) would get into Harvard or Stanford that I just couldn’t take it. The turning point for me was when our district was opening up a new elementary school that our kids were slated to attend, and one mother hysterically proclaimed that she heard ALL the good books were staying in the original elementary school’s library and we would get NOTHING. An extremely sarcastic (I know, there’s a shocker) response almost escaped my lips. In a rare moment of self-control, I managed to keep my trap shut but I was so outta there. Another place where I wouldn’t make 10,000 hours. Or even close.

On the other hand, I realized, busily typing in a cramped economy seat, I have spent well over 10,000 hours flying for business. And I want to say that I am extremely good at this. I don’t freak out in turbulence – rather, it rocks me to sleep. I get along with even the surliest flight crews. I check my seat assignment in advance to make sure I won’t be stuck next to the bathroom (that is living hell to me on a long flight). I get to the airport early enough so I don’t generally miss flights. And I bring my own food so I don’t have to worry or care about what yellow or brown meal the airline will be providing me (at $6 meal). I try really hard not to be a diva and to be keep my sense of humor (I don't always succeed but I keep working on it - may need another 10,000 hours to achieve perfection here). Overall, experience really does count in helping me get through airports and flights without meltdowns, temper tantrums and blood-pressure busting stress. Persistence. Perhaps it's time to take up skiing again. Or maybe we should just leave well enough alone...


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