In Lewis Carol’s novella Through the Looking Glass, there’s a quirky little dialog between Alice and the Red Queen:
“‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’
“‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’”
I think about this dialog a lot. Not in the context of bizarre, Victorian-era novellas, but in the normal fact that many of us, unwittingly, are doing the exact same thing.
Think about your professional life. How much of the time do you spend working is getting you to where you’d like to be? How much is creating growth, opportunity, mastery? And, how much is running just to stay in the same place?
Stagnation is Default
K. Anders Ericsson’s pioneering work on deliberate practice was celebrated in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. A recurring theme in those popularizations is the idea that mastery takes hard work. Ten thousand hours, as Gladwell puts it, is the requirement to succeed in a field, no way around it.
While the exact ten-thousand hour figure is only an average, there’s a subtler mistake in this account of mastery. That is, it assumes that putting in the hours is the main variable to control for success.
Digging into the research, Ericsson’s work suggests almost the opposite: hours alone don’t mean very much. Most of us put in thousands of hours at our jobs, favorite hobbies and leisure activities, and yet, for the vast majority, we never reach the level that could be described as a top performer or expert.
The reason is simple: most of that effort isn’t going anywhere. We’re running just to stay in the same place.
The Problem With Being Too Busy
There’s a pernicious logic to this. You’re working hard to build the kind of career you’d like. Even if you’re happy with your pay and surroundings, you want to have a legacy—a level of skill and craft that makes your work stand out. Yet—if we take the research seriously—virtually none of the time you spend working will help you reach this goal.
This isn’t universally true. When you start on a new task, position or responsibility, there often *is* a steep line of improvement. However, once adequacy on core tasks has been reached, those skills often reach a level of automaticity, and they lose the conscious deliberation that made growth possible.
It is also not the case, as some have imagined, that these plateaus represent insurmountable barriers to further increases in skill. Creating an opportunity for deliberate practice, such as by incentivising higher levels of performance or by offering an opportunity to learn from better feedback, can often return one to the initial part of the growth phase.
Running just to stay in the same spot is how most of us live our lives. We’re so inundated with responsibilities, tasks, emails, requests and pressures, that we live in frenzied stasis.
Moving forward is difficult. Getting better at what you do is against your natural urge to transform adequate skills into solidified habits.
However, the benefits to getting better are worth that price. As you improve, your career capital increases. Applying that career capital wisely, you can use it to make choices about your professional life instead of having them be decided for you. That can be more prestige, money and status. But it can also mean having more time for your family, travel or freedom to choose your own projects.
Career capital, which in most professions manifests itself at least partly as having rare and valuable skills, is like currency. You can spend it in different ways, to suit your tastes, but ultimately it’s up to you to earn it.
This was the motivation that started Cal and I onto researching and developing our course, Top Performer. We recognized that virtually everyone, without specific systems in place, eventually ends up running just to stay in the same place.
In that realization, there’s both a hope and a danger. The danger is that, because this is the tendency, it requires a special kind of thinking to get away from it, to make constant growth of your career capital and spend it wisely to make your life better, not just more hectic. The hope, however, is that because such deliberate efforts are rare, there’s a potential for great advantage for those who know how to apply it.
Lesson One Homework
Your homework for today is simple:
- Think back over the last twenty four hours. Try to remember all the things you did, and list them out on a piece of paper.
- Ask which of these things will matter ten years from now.
- Of those tasks that will matter in ten years, which were directed at improving a specific aspect of a skill you have? This could be learning something new, or consciously trying to get better at something you already know how to do. Doing a skill you already know, without this conscious effort to improve, doesn’t count.
If you’re like me, you maybe only had one or two tasks that met the third criteria. Maybe zero. There’s no reason to feel bad about that. The important thing to feel isn’t guilt, but the sense of opportunity. If you could shift even an hour or two of your day onto deliberate practice of a skill that will matter ten years from now, you could make dramatic changes in your professional life.
The challenge, of course, is how to do this. Slipping back to simply doing the work instead of getting better at it is so easy, and often the immediate pressures of daily life make it hard to get through the day, nevermind improve.
Over the next three lessons, I’ll be sharing some advice on how to start creating a wedge in your daily life for deliberate practice to create growth. It may start small, but over time it can become larger as you have more flexibility from the career capital it provided.
After this, Cal and I will be opening a new session of our full eight-week course on this topic, Top Performer. Stay tuned!
Note: The remaining three lessons will only be made available to those who join my newsletter. If you’d like to receive them, you’ll need to sign up here before they go out.