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The Midweek Motivator – Ten Thousand Hours Revisited

Canadian behaviorist Malcolm Gladwell has written several compelling books on human behavior. In Outliers he focused on shared traits of the highly accomplished. The most intriguing of chapters “The Ten Thousand Hour Rule” remains in my mind a million dollar discovery!

The University of Michigan opened its new “Computer Center” in 1971, long before most of us knew what a computer looked like. The university’s enormous mainframe units stood in the middle of a vast white room like a scene from “2001 Space Odyssey”. U of M had one of the World’s most advanced computer science programs. Among the early partisans came a lanky 16 year old named Bill Joy who had graduated early from his nearby high school, and having found the Computer Center it became his life.

During his PhD oral exams Joy made up a complex algorithm that stunned his examiners. His early rewriting of UNIX, a software system developed for AT&T’s mainframe computers; so good that it remained the operating system on which millions of computers run. In fact among Silicon Valley insiders Bill Joy enjoys a name as significant as Microsoft’s Bill Gates. So it became a settled disposition people, who become mega achievers acknowledge a minimum of 10,000 hours perfecting their base. And it’s not that they work much harder than everyone else, they work much, much harder.

Flipping from left-brain to right-brain, consider the Beatles. Digging below the surface we find they found their own version of U of M’s computer center—some sort of special venue for practice. Everyone knows The Beatles (Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr) came to the US in 1964. But almost no one knows or remembers they had been together since 1957, years before landing in America. If we look closely we find them in parallel with Bill Joy; invited to play in an unlikely place, Hamburg, Germany where there were no “rock & roll” music clubs but instead, strip joints. Many bands that played there were from Liverpool; for the Fab-Four it was an accident. Biographer Phil Norman wrote, “The club Bruno fell in love with the Beatles!”

What was so special about Hamburg? Well, it wasn’t the pay or that the acoustics were fantastic (neither was true), nor could it be said the audiences were special. They weren’t. It came down to one thing: the incredible amount of time the band was forced to play. Lennon told a reporter, “We got better and gained more confidence because we played all night long. We often played for eight hours!” Pete Best, drummer at that time added “Once they knew we were playing all night, the club packed them in until two in the morning, seven days a week.”

Bill Gates story is as well known as the Beatles; drops out of Harvard to start a little company with his friends called Microsoft. From there we know the rest, but what we may not know is Gates came from a wealthy Seattle family that took him out of public school, enrolling him at Lakeside, a private school for Seattle’s well-to-do. Into his second year, the school started a computer club (most colleges didn’t have one at that time). 

Gates was so hooked late at night he’d sneak out of bed and take the bus to UW. Gates laughed when telling his account, expressing his appreciation: “They let me steal so much computer time and were so great!” From musicians to athletes to software savants, there remains an uncanny commonality: these people and more like them spent a minimum of ten thousand hours immersed in their passion and at the expense of other pursuits. 10,000 hours.