There’s an Xbox One sitting in the corner of the room. At least that’s what I assume is inside the box that has laid on the floor for the past dozen days, the Amazon logo smiling at me whenever I walk past. I can’t be sure; I haven’t opened it yet. That I’d one day buy a new gaming console and not stop everything to set it up immediately would have been unfathomable to me several years ago. Today? It’s a liability, a tool needed for my part-time profession that poses a risk to my grand plan.
Back in November I reached out to the publisher I wrote video game strategy guides for to let them know I would be returning home from our travels and would be looking for work in March. “I’ll be focusing on fiction,” I said, “but want to pick up two or three projects a year to have some money coming in.” March came and, sure enough, they had work for me. I spent the last two weeks working furiously on a guidebook with a very short deadline (hence the lack of blog posts last week). It felt good to be back doing the work I enjoy — and to be generating content that will be seen and read by the end of spring. And no sooner had I started that guide, had I also been encouraged to get an Xbox One so I could be part of the Gears of War 4 beta coming up in April. I had written the strategy guides for the entire Gears of War series — it’s one of my all-time favorite franchises — and I’m certainly hoping to be part of the team doing the guide for the next installment. So I bought the console and I look forward to the beta and I will enjoy playing it.
But despite my love of gaming, I know I must limit my time spent doing so.
Identify the Distractions
Steven Pressfield, author of best-selling Gates of Fire and Legend of Bagger Vance writes in his books Turning Pro and Do the Work that the only way to truly master one’s craft is to eviscerate all distractions. Anything — and anyone — that poses a threat to our self-improvement must be cut from our lives. Hobbies, social media, Internet rabbit holes, mindless television, negative friends and family, and, perhaps most of all, non-essential news that only serves to make us dumber and keep us distracted. All of this and more must be jettisoned in the pursuit of our craft. It will hurt, for sure, but it must be done if we are to ever attain our goals, he says. Greatness requires sacrificing our distractions, no matter how pleasurable they may be.
There are few greater distractions than a video game console.
I’ve always been a man with a lot of interests. From mountain biking to gaming to travel and photography and several others. And I still am. There are so many things I’d love to learn how to do and activities I enjoy that I strive to do better. If only there were more hours in the day, more years in a lifetime! But we can’t do everything. We must be honest with ourselves. We must choose. Many of us choose to march along through life talking about how nice it’d be to learn a foreign language or to play an instrument or write a novel, all the while squandering the hours and days we’re afforded satisfying our baser desires with mind-numbing distractions.
There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as we admit that’s what we want.
I also think it’s perfectly fine to pursue any one of those grand goals in a casual fashion. I made three different attempts at learning guitar during my lifetime. All of them half-hearted. I acknowledge that. I didn’t want it badly enough to commit myself to the task. Not the way Pressfield recommends. And that’s fine. I’ve tried learning Japanese in the past as well, but never with any conviction. My failures were a surprise to nobody, including myself.
But what if the goal isn’t to just say you learned a new skill or did something you always dreamed of? What if the goal is mastery? Fluency? Expertise?
10,000 Hours in Practice
Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery. It’s a belief many psychologists and elite performers subscribe to, Pressfield among them. Not just any practice either, but structured study that is thoughtfully designed to produce an elite level of skill. My first encounter with the 10,000 hours concept came five years ago when learning about The Dan Plan. Dan McLaughlin, a thirty-year old guy who had never played a round of golf, quit his job, hired a coach to help him develop the plan, and set about mastering the game of golf. He put in 30 hours of structured practice per week with the hopes of becoming a professional golfer after his 10,000 hours were complete. It was five months before he left the driving range and putting green. His blog updates tailed off last year due to injury, but he had shot 2 under par before his back halted his effort and at one point achieved a 2.6 handicap. Not bad for a nonathletic guy who never played the game four years prior.
Interviews with successful businesspeople, athletes, and artists always uncover a few similarities about how they live their lives — things they do and things they avoid. They wake up early, they exercise daily, and they read something of substance for at least one hour every day. Other similarities include what they don’t do. They avoid reality television and they never post on message boards or spend time on social media. To a person they point out that they aim to learn something new — something meaningful — every day.
If the average employee with two weeks vacation works roughly 2,000 hours a year, assuming any overtime is offset by time wasted at the water cooler, browsing the Internet (gotta check those investments!), and just general goofing off, it would take 5 years of 40-hour work weeks to log 10,000 hours. And that’s assuming an impossible 100% efficiency.
Is it any wonder we have so few experts when there are so many distractions in our lives?
Stephen King is famous for saying he writes every single day. Even on his birthday. Even on Christmas. Some may read that and see it as a monomaniacal addiction of Ahab proportions; others see it as a man devoted to his craft, an example of what it takes. A pro’s pro.
For those like me who don’t just want to write a novel to say they did it, but are trying to reinvent-slash-dedicate themselves to the pursuit of mastery in a new craft, King’s work ethic is inspiring. And the simple math of the 10,000 hours combined with Pressfield’s tough love is the jolt of reality we need. How can we ever accumulate 10,000 hours of devoted practice if we don’t silence the distractions that surround us?
Chasing the Vanishing Point
There’s an optical phenomena known as the vanishing point. You’ve seen it, even if you didn’t know what it was. It’s that point in the distance where the parallel lines of a highway seem to converge into a single point on the horizon. In the foreground you see two parallel lines, quite far apart from one another, on your periphery. Experience tells you they’re not going to get any closer, but there in the distance they come together as one. And then? Poof! The lines, the road, the traffic has all vanished.
Standing just beyond the starting line, a scant few hundred hours into my self-guided apprenticeship, mastery seems as far away and physically unattainable as the vanishing point on the highway. It’s out there, in the distance, and though it never gets any closer I know I must pursue it in order to reach my destination.
And the lane? The lane is wide, with too much room all around for things I don’t need. Things none of us need. Extraneous hobbies and guilty pleasures and the chorus of the peanut gallery that wants to hold us back and distract us and make us as angry and unproductive as they. All of this wants to come along for the ride. But it can’t. These distractions are stowaways that serve only to encumber, to slow us down. The quicker we reject them, the faster we can complete our journey. After all, the lane is narrower out there in the distance. There’s less room. Out on the ever-moving horizon, where our goal awaits, there is room only for us and our chosen craft.
This isn’t to say I believe we must cut all other interests (or loved ones) from our lives in order to pursue the craft. Hell no! But we must be hyper defensive of our time to reach our goals. 10,000 hours is an awful lot of time. We can’t piss it away on nonsense! We must ask ourselves if each and every activity we devote even a minute of time to is time well-spent. Note that I don’t believe everything has to be geared directly towards study. For example, I try to go mountain biking or trail running at least five days a week. The exercise isn’t only healthy, but it rejuvenates me. I feel fresher — and more productive — after a hard ride than if I had continue tapping away on my laptop. Similarly, I find an occasional gaming session or time spent cooking to be meditative. And when it comes to our nightly hour of television, my wife and I watch long-form series and you better believe I’m studying the art of storytelling as we watch. We’re currently making our way through Aaron Sorkin’s outstanding show The Newsroom.
But the Internet? Email? Social media? Cable news? Reality TV? If it’s not directly related to the pursuit of craft, it’s got to go. Or at least be dialed way back, a fleeting indulgence reserved for after the day’s work has been done. After all, nobody ever achieved greatness by spending their day reading rabble-rousing Internet articles or by engaging in Twitter fights or by obsessing over their fantasy football team.
Professionals don’t seek distractions and they don’t tolerate them in their inbox.
So we must pursue the dream and chase that narrowing path with determination and endurance. Let the converging lines squeeze the polluting distractions from our lives. For it’s the only way to reach that magical point in the distance. And though the road will still be there, and the lines still parallel, we will discover that something has in fact vanished.
Post Image by Mikel Ortega, used under Creative Commons.