I Guess I are One…Finally!

I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” Like The Tipping Point and Blink before it, he gives a very readable and fresh insight into things you thought you knew, or kind of thought you knew but never really applied logic to, or maybe never thought about at all, but are glad to know.

One of his fascinating observations is the 10,000 hour “rule.” He says that it takes 10,000 hours of direct experience to become truly proficient (at anything) on a world-class level. Ten thousand hours is a lot. He delivers several anecdotes about how this happens

Bill Joy (creator of Unix and Java), Bill Gates and others were placed in unusual circumstances as children, giving them massive access to computers before they were available to the general public. Gates, for example, would sneak out of his house in high school to use the university computer between 3 and 6 am; because no one would kick him out then. He attended a school that had unusual access to computers, and had even more access at home.

Professional athletes spend more time in their youth on all-star squads with greater practice requirements, and frequently play one sport year ’round. They are also “gym rats” (or the equivalent venue in other sports) putting in endless additional hours refining their game. Michael Jordan is only one star of many who was known for “first to arrive, last to leave” practice ethic throughout his career.

How about those profiles of Olympic stars during the games? Michael Phelps swimming three hours each morning and three each afternoon, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. That’s 36 hours a week, 1,900 hours a year, from age 12 until he becomes a world-class competitor at 17. About 10,000 hours.

The Beatles were bigger than any other band of their era. Why? Because of their unusual early history. They loved playing the strip-joint dives of Hamburg as teens and early twenty somethings. (No drinking age and unlimited sex. Go figger) Five years of months-long gigs playing from 6:00 PM to 1:00 or 2:00 AM, with no breaks allowed, because customers only came in if the music was going. In five years they played an estimated 1,200 nights. 10,000 hours.

I began wondering what it takes to be a true expert in a business discipline. A 40 hour work week would deliver about 2,000 hours of experience in a year, but how much of that experience is directly enhancing a skill? Swimmers swim. Musicians play music all the time. But do salesmen sell all day? Do managers manage every minute they are working?

If you were a salesman, for example, you would have to deduct travel time, report writing, sales meetings, coordinating with your secretary, learning new products, and market research. That’s not to mention trips to the bathroom, calling home to see what’s for dinner and checking your stocks on the Internet. How much of your time is actually spent in face-to-face selling? Is it 10%? 20%? At 20%, or 400 hours a year, it would take you 25 years to develop a sales skill level that was the equivalent of a rookie NBA player’s skill at basketball. That assumes your 25 years were all spent in selling as your “full time” occupation.

I have hesitated to call myself a small business expert. I have about 33 years in management and running companies, but how much of that was doing one thing? I have always thought of myself as more of a generalist. I can sell, and I understand finance. I’ve managed lots of people, sold a substantial number of companies, and done strategic plans; but does that make me an expert in anything by Gladwell’s definition ?

If I put all my certifications together I could string twenty-something letters after my name. But does 80 or 100 hours studying for a certification program, or even 500 hours getting an advanced degree, make someone an expert? Any of us who work in the real world knows that isn’t the case.

If I’ve had a chance to be expert at anything, it is understanding the issues of a small business owner. For the last 13 years, since September of 1997, I’ve applied my experience in direct facilitation of meetings of business owners in The Alternative Board® and in coaching them one on one. Of course I wondered, is 13 years enough to be an expert?

For most of that time we’ve had 12 Boards, each one meeting for 4 hours each month. I have usually chaired 4 boards myself, and audit another meeting or two each month. Lets say 5 meetings a month on average, sometimes a lot more. 5 meetings x 4 hours x 12 months x 13 years= 3,120 hours listening to business owners solve their issues. That not even close enough to make me an expert.

During the 13 years I’ve coached between 30 and 40 clients personally at any given time. The coaching sessions last at least an hour, and often more. Let’s take a conservative measure of 30 clients monthly at an hour each. 30 clients x 1 hour x 12 months x 13 years= 4,680 hours coaching business owners on their issues. That is a big leap in the right direction, but I still fall far short of “expert” by Gladwell’s definition.

Most of the rest of my time (typically in a 60 hour work week) is spent in business owner related activities. I give presentations about The Alternative Board, plan and deliver seminars, meet with our contracted coaches to discuss clients, do lots of continuing education, write books and articles and sell businesses as a broker. While all of those are related to small business, they aren’t actually dealing with the specific issues of individual owners. They are more the equivalent of the salesman doing call reports.

My face-to-face contact with business owners for the purpose of discussing their issues, ambitions and plans includes one or two lunches a week with those I don’t coach personally, just to keep up. (Let’s say 6-8 hours a month.) I interview an average of three to five prospective TAB members monthly at 90 minutes to two hours each. (5-8 hours). I consult directly, both as a favor to members, discussing the sale of businesses as a broker with owners who are considering an exit, and in paid engagements. That isn’t all face time, but I can easily call it another 8 hours of face-to-face contact each month. Those one on one interactions total at least 20 hours a month, or another (20x12x13) 3,120 hours over the last 13 years.

Totaling 3,120 with 4,680 and 3,120 yields 10,920 hours of specific discussions with business owners for the purpose of tackling the special challenges, concerns, gratification and (sometimes) pure terror of being responsible for your own destiny. (Note: That’s why this blog is called Awake at 2 O’Clock in the Morning. All business owners get it.)

Like the others named above, I owe the magic 10,000 hours to an unusual set of circumstances, and my own love of the game. I don’t play golf, or hunt, or fish, or do much of anything else except work with business owners and spend time with my family. At least it appears that I’ve earned the right to claim expert status in my chosen profession. It’s nice to know.

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One Response to I Guess I are One…Finally!

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have to wonder whether 10,000 hours really is the magic number. Each of us has a different hunger for knowledge and a varying commitment to learn and grow. Some get 5,000 hours of experience and will truly become proficient at their task whereas some will get 1 hours experience 10,000 times and never master anything.

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