How to Become Successful: 10,000 hours

Yes, that’s right. A portion to success in anything is to clock 10,000 hours, 417 full days into whatever you do. Or so claims Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink“, in his latest book “Outliers“. After interviewing many extraordinary people like Bill Gates and the Beatles, he comes to the conclusion that one important component of success is to have 10,000 hours of experience. Bill Gates started programming in 1969 as a 13 year old. And continued to spend all his free time programing – all the way until he set up Microsoft. The Beatles were forced to play 19 hours everyday for years in Germany before they had their big break. And by time they made it big in the US, they had already performed 1,000 gigs.

It’s simple and blatantly obvious, if you think about it. A person with the opportunity and dedication to sing for 10,000 hours or geek out for 10,000 is obviously going to be more skilled than someone (of equal talent) who only sings in the shower or geek out only when s/he majors in Computer Science.

With that said, Gladwell isn’t saying that 10,000 hours guarantees that you will become the next Bill Gates. It’s just that Bill Gates was rich and fortunate enough to clock 10,000 hours of programming in an era where computers were not easily accessible to the public. So social status, cultural background, era of birth, innate talent and the magic 10,000 hours all played critical roles in his success. In short, Bill lead a life of luck, while never forgetting hard work.

However, Gladwell does point out that 10,000 hours is the magic number that gets you good at something – good enough to be the best in your country, or in some cases, the world.

Have I clocked 10,000 hours for anything? Probably.

Surfing the Internet: 20,000 hours
I started surfing at age 9. In 1995, my dad brought home a modem to connect to the Internet. I can still remember the excitement in his eyes. From there I owned a Hotmail account, logged onto mIRC, and regularly scoured Yahoo!. Then at age 11, I stumbled upon a Backstreet Boys fansite hosted on Geocities. It was too pretty for words – then. And that’s how started learning HTML.

Over the past 12 years, I’ve clocked in 20,000 hours in email, chat, surfing and web design. Not sure how many hours I’ve spent with web design, but it’s safe to say somewhere close to 3,000 hours.

Watching Anime: 1,800 hours
I’m sure I’ve spent more time doing other things in my life, but anime deserves an honorable mention. Here’s why: I started watching anime in 2006. According to my anime list, I’ve watched about 75 days worth of anime. That means I’ve clocked 1,800 hours within 2 years. It’s a scary thought, but I now enjoy an interesting byproduct.

Language Mastery at 10,000 hours?

So it struck me. Watching 1,800 hours of anime is probably why I can easily understand colloquial Japanese. It means that I’ve spent 1,800 hours listening to spoken Japanese (while reading subtitles). For the record, I’ve never tried to study Japanese beyond the alphabet system. I can barely read, write or even speak Japanese.

And this also explains certain strengths and weaknesses I have with other foreign languages. I’ve read a lot of French in my life. I’d read up literary works, news and even blogs. But I’ve never had the opportunity to speak. So I couldn’t ever have a decent French conversation without interjecting with “ummm…” after every 5 words. As for Chinese, I’ve always understood it well. That’s ’cause my mom would scold and lecture me in Chinese. But I’d always retort in English, and staunchly refused to read anything with Chinese characters on it. So my strength lies with understanding Chinese but not speaking, reading or writing.

So the key to master a second language is to clock 10,000 hours and divide it equally amongst reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Moral of the story: Get off your lazy butt and start clocking 10,000 hours if you want to be the best. And if you’re learning a second language, spend 2,500 hours watching movies, 2,500 hours reading the newspaper, 2,500 hours skyping with foreigners, and 2,500 writing a blog. When you finally reach 10,000 hours, your second language will have probably become as easy as your first.

In the meantime, I will attempt to get off my lazy butt and clock another 8,000 hours in web design, read more books in Chinese, and practice strumming the guitar.

Have you spent 10,000 hours in an activity? (Please don’t say school, work or sleep. That’s the same for everyone.) What do you think the keys to success are?