What are You Going to be Exceptional at in 10 Years?

Many people set the right goals, but the wrong deadlines. They want to become a professional blogger, but set a deadline of 6 months, instead of 6 years. This short-term thinking detracts from the big picture, where becoming really good at something takes at least a decade, not just 18 months.

“Freedom and success isn’t about taking big risks. It’s about becoming good enough at something society values, so you can dictate the terms for how you live your life.” This was something productivity blogger Cal Newport related to me.

He said that he only knew a few examples of people who had reached success because of unconventional risk-taking. However, he said he knew many people that have tremendous personal freedom because they became exceptionally good at something the world values.

Where’s Your Next Decade Going?

Malcolm Gladwell puts the mark at 10,000 hours. That’s a decade of work investing three hours to develop a skill, every day, for almost every week of the year. This is the number of hours it takes to become exceptional at something. Whether it’s writing, programming, music, research or dentistry.

Ten thousand might not be the exact number. For you it might be 8000, or 16,000. What matters isn’t the exact number, but the kind of long-term thinking that goes along with it. Instead of asking yourself how you will reach a goal in 18 months. Figure out where you’re going to spend your next decade.

My Next Ten Years

For my next decade, I’d like to work on becoming good at two things: writing and online micro-entrepreneurship. Writing, because even if I don’t decide to sustain myself as a full-time writer it is a potent skill. Micro-entrepreneurship, because it’s my biggest passion and I enjoy the challenges of running a small enterprise more than what I’ve seen from friends who’ve built larger ventures.

So far, I’ve put in a little over three years on each of these skills. But, I fully expect it to take at least another ten to become exceptionally good at them.

That’s why I refuse to get frustrated if I don’t make immediate progress or I don’t start earning six-figures immediately. Because I’m still far back on the curve and have a number of years to invest before I can become exceptional.

“What if I don’t know where to invest the next decade of my life?”

I’m lucky because I’ve found something I consider rewarding, and society values enough that I’m able to make a profit off of it. Many people are stuck on one of either sides. Either they know what they love, but society doesn’t value it. Or they know what society values, but they don’t get any joy creating it.

First, becoming exceptionally good can allow you to enjoy something more. Some of the dissatisfaction with a pursuit comes from a lack of skill. I enjoy writing far more now than I did when I started, because I’m able to produce something I feel is of a decent quality. Exceptional ability can often produce a passion.

Second, becoming exceptionally good allows you to dictate the terms of sustaining your life. If you are an exceptionally good accountant, you don’t need to do routine book-keeping. You can work as a consultant, getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to travel while working infrequently.

A lot of work dissatisfaction comes from the things other than work itself. Bosses, staying inside an office, corporate culture, busywork, constant demands placed on your time and stress. Becoming exceptional affords you the opportunity in many cases to dictate the terms of all the other things associated to work.

Don’t Ask What You’re Passionate About

Passion, can be a Catch-22. Often you need to have invested the hours to become good at something in order to build a passion. Skill produces the feedback that makes work enjoyable. Basketball isn’t fun if you’re awful at basketball. Writing isn’t fun if you feel self-conscious about every sentence. Programming isn’t fun if every compilation produces bugs.

So, instead of asking what you’re passionate about, ask yourself what you could become exceptionally good at that society values. Then, expect to spend the next decade becoming exceptionally good at it.

Thanks to Cal Newport for initiating many of these ideas. Check out Cal’s productivity/student blog, Study Hacks.

Read This Next
Paradoxical Virtues
  • Shrey Goyal

    Everything said, I still think 10 years is way too long a time to consider, for the following reasons:

    – A decade could lead to landslide changes in the intended field of study (especially so, the examples given).
    – Why just 3 hours a day? One could put in around 1800-2000 hours a year with enough passion.
    – And why 10,000 hours?

    I understand the answers to the above would vary according to the concerned person’s definition of “exceptional”, current workload/ commitments, relation of the current work profile with the intended skill, aptitude, passion, nature of competition in the intended field etc.

    I am currently a full-time student, at a university quite renowned for its academic workload. I have been trying to give around 40 hours a week to my passion, and more during my semester breaks, and it has been working well since the past 4 months. I didn’t exactly start from scratch then, but was introduced to the discipline just about a year ago, and spend some months identifying my passion and evaluating my potential accordingly. The field I’m looking towards is only as related to my university major as any two randomly selected fields, though I’m looking forward to using the insight from both the areas in the future.

    I have already initiated some projects (academic as well as entrepreneurial in nature) in the field that I’m passionate about, which have received appreciation [and funding as well 🙂 ] from the industry experts. I hope to become a pro in about 2.5-3 more years from now, or about a year after I graduate (during which i’ll engage myself full-time in it).

    I understand this could be plain teenage naivety on my part. Are my expectations unjustified ?

  • jackmo

    nice one scotty,

    you’ve hit the nail on the head. It took me 5 years of battling in the corporate structure before realising that this is a waste of life.

    Better to realise this while you’re still young so you don’t get to your mid 40’s and realise you’ve wasted the best years of your life helping a faceless company acheive it’s goals. What happens if you get made redundant or the company goes under?

    Good luck with dominating your goals, I personally reckon you can do it less then 10 years :p Although I guess mastery is subjective, Musashi only considered himself a master swordsman at age 50 and he never lost a fight.

  • Ian V.

    Well this was great. Thank you!

    The end was in fact what I needed most. I have right now much time and try to find what is my inner passion. Cal Newport talks of it as a remanance of youth. (The renowned mathematician is one thanks to his father and eggs) I have found none and searching consumes my time.

    I must say I am still stunned of how we can take our life and conciously point it in one direction. I shall now work upon that!

    Oh and for the comment above:

    -If you already have given 3 years

  • Ian V.

    -… of your life to a single big picture, odds seem to point you will continue.
    – You should search about this. I do not remember the source nevertheless it is written that one should only focus 2-3 hours. After those hours, time spent on the objective will gradually become very inefficient.
    – I do not know, then again you should search. Malcolm Gladwell seems to be the key.

    Well have a good day Scott H Young and Shrey Goyal!

  • Scott Young


    Agreed, you can devote more time. 10,000 hours has become a popular figure, after Malcolm Gladwell publicized it in articles and his new book.

    But I’d say deep expertise and skill in a craft would typically require a long time. Exactly how long is difficult to predict, but it is going to be a long time. I’d rather focus on the long-term and not burn myself out early, than try to become a master in 3 years and end up burning out in 2 months.


  • Someone

    I like your blog better than Steve’s.

  • Ketan Patel

    The closing paragraph about “Often you need to have invested the hours to become good at something in order to build a passion. “
    really resonated with me.

    I get really deterred somtimes when I don’t get the results I want but this is a really good way of looking at things. Let passion grow as your skill does.

    Great article.

  • Cal

    It’s great to see a post from you on these topics.

    A reader recently pointed me toward Richard Sennet as another interesting take on the idea of mastery. I’m in the progress of tracking down his work, but thought I would mention him here in case others wanted to join me in the effort.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Cal,

    Let me know if you track anything down.


  • Andrew

    I don’t think the divide between mastery and passion is as rigid as you describe.

    You can be poor at something, but still find it enjoyable enough for it to become a passion.

    If we focus solely on mastering useful skills, we may become very good at them, but if we lack the interest and passion in them, we may become mired in mediocrity.

    Another take is by only focusing on skills that we seek mastery or are already on our way to mastery, we may not develop new skills or try new things.

    It’s the concept of staying with the safe and familiar instead of experimenting and learning.

    I think the best thing to do try a few different skills, then focus on those we are interested in and take the time to make them into strengths/”masteries”.

  • Jonas

    “Often you need to have invested the hours to become good at something in order to build a passion.”

    I think this is very true. One of my good friends from high school was an exceptional soccer player who had cried every time his mother drove him to practice at age 5. His initial abhorrence of it didn’t stop soccer from becoming one of his greatest passions, and I believe he was recruited by some college teams.

    My own experience is that looking at an activity with the explicit intention of finding out if it’s something one might be passionate about often distances you from being sufficiently involved in the activity to know for sure, and squelches any passion you might have for that activity by making you too skeptical and over-demanding. You often find yourself waiting for a spontaneous rise of fire in the belly, and wondering why it wouldn’t come. It may be wise to simply get in the habit of doing small, routine things well, and that would make it more likely that you’ll eventually find yourself unusually passionate for an activity.

  • mani k

    dear scott,

    i have been reading self improvemant topics since schooldays and i find them useful. after reading your blog, one of my daily target is to read one article daily from your archives.

    at times i think that majority of the people don’t want to improve persnally.. they just want to continue the same job, same routine and resist any changes.

    i have, overt the years ,read and gatherd lots of article on various areas of self improvement. sometimes , i tries to give them to my friends and family members to intorduce or encourage them to such topics, but they find it very boring.. scott, do you think that not many people want to improve personally?

    i read your 80/20 theory.. i have one more thing to add to that. only 20 % of the people are driven, serious about setting goals and have passion, and the rest 80% leads a mediocre life. so, naturally, 20% controls and possess the resource and wealth.
    i would deeply appreciate your views on this since i value your comments.

  • J.D. Meier

    Good thoughts.

    I’ve been thinking about the next 10 year chunk and I’m a fan of mastery and excellence. I’m actually thinking about adding more body mastery, back into my life, whether it’s martial arts, Yoga or Pilates. I want my body to last me for the long haul and my mind already gets flexed from my day job.

    Writing is definitely a great craft to master, and it’s perfect because you can use it to organize your mind, share your thoughts, better yourself, or better the world.

  • Scott Young

    Interesting thoughts mani.

  • cj

    well, first let me extend my respect to scott for this work; I am a big fan. I believe that the idea of 10000 hours seems reasonable because for example; medical dr spend so much time learning and focusing on medicine and then their specialty. my point is that after all those years; they would have become masters. I hope to get to that place; in my life where I can apply all these things that I’ve read , and continue to read about. I’m currently pursuing my degree in nursing; hopefully to eventually become a doctor. any advice on how to remain committed to my passion; would be appreciated. thank you

  • Scott Young


    Patience creates persistence. If your expectations are reasonable, and you are focused on action in the moment, it isn’t hard for those individual days of hard work to turn into years.


  • Charles Chua C K

    Yes, there is no overnight success. It is about working long-term wholeheartedly.

  • Richard Bartlett

    As you said in the post, the arbitrary figure of 10,000 hours is meaningless as a figure. What is important is the notion that you have to dedicate an enormous amount of your time to a discipline to become highly proficient. If someone starts working towards something with this in mind, they’ll approach the process of learning without self limiting short term thinking. (e.g Chastising themselves for failing to make progress after six months).

    I’m dubious about the term mastery as it seems to imply a level of proficiency beyond which further learning is not possible. I don’t believe in such a level but I may be misinterpreting this particular use of the word. Great blog you have here.

  • Vin

    a note: you can become a master in less than 10 years if you practice something that very little people practice….

  • De

    What will you be good at in a few years? 1.Singing 2.Writing

  • Farrukh Shahzad

    The best thing one can do in ten years is to try to become free man. But the important thing is the progress within these ten years. I suppose in these ten years one can divide them in stages for continues progress.

  • Adrian

    Interesting article. I liked the point that skill leads to passion as much as vice versa.

    Can I just name check Anders Ericsson? He is the guy that found out about the 10,000 hours rule (not Gladwell) and he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for it.

    Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that it is 10,000 hours or so of deliberate practice. So just 10,000 hours of writing (or whatever) isn’t going to do it. You need 10,000 hours of honing specific techniques in a structured way, and then getting really good feedback on each of those hours. It’s a tough ask, but good luck to all who are on the road.

  • Sam

    Even though my comment is someworth late. The post is not obsolete.NICE point post.AND I will like to ask you Scott,when did you commence your policy or principle of Holistic learning.Not just in response or reaction 2 d post but i wil like 2 know

  • Katie

    Hey Scott, thank you for this really inspiring, pro-active post. So many posts are about AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE NOW NOW NOW!!! And so it is really refreshing to read a post that is about cultivating quality work, over tiiiiiiiime. Slow is the new fast 🙂 It is also all about the journey, and enjoying the ride; not necessarily speeding your way through gaining skills, which may end up shoddy as you didn’t spend enough good time on honing them.

    I hope to be exceptional at writing, living sustainably (I’m just starting out on the journey, and i have a LOT to learn!), travelling and learning languages.

    Good luck with your goals, they are brilliant. Keep up the great work. Katie.

  • lynne

    Hi very well said, I totally agree with you that often we need to have invested the hours to become good at something in order to build a passion. We cannot just become exceptional overnight. Thanks for sharing. Great post .