10,000 Hours of Personal Growth

You may have heard the idea idea that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery in a certain field. This is equivalent to doing your activity full time for 5 years (10,000 hours = 40 hours/week x 50 weeks/year x 5 years).

I was recently asked what it looks for me to have invested well beyond 10K hours working on personal growth. Where does the time go? What do I actually do to rack up that many hours?

Here are some things I do to explore personal growth:

Lots of reading – I’ve read 1000+ books on topics related to personal growth, probably 50-100 just on productivity… plus others on relationships, entrepreneurship, wealth and abundance, spirituality, career development, goal setting and achievement, technology, etc. I’ve read more books than I’ve written articles. I also love taking in input from other sources — articles, videos, documentaries, speeches, studies, conferences, etc. I use MySpeed to watch TED videos at 2-4x the normal speed. I try to learn something new every day. Sometimes I’ll quickly read several books on an interesting topic. I’ll often learn in a few days what someone would normally spread out over a semester. I find traditional schooling mind-numbingly slow.

Deep dives – I love to immerse myself in new growth experiences. Sometimes I can be a bit obsessive about these deep dives. When I learn slowly, I tend to lose motivation. But if I go all-out immersive, I learn faster, build motivation, and maintain momentum. I especially love 30-day trials, where I’ll try something new for 30 days in a row. Reading books is great, but I also love to learn in a hands-on, experiential way. I enjoy connecting the dots between book knowledge and real-world experience.

Personal growth as a lifestyle – Personal growth isn’t a side activity for me. It’s my life. Presently I’m in Acapulco, Mexico. It’s my first time in Mexico, so I’m visiting a new country. I’m here for two conferences this month, one as an attendee and one as a speaker, so there will be lots of other growth-oriented people to connect with. I’m also studying and learning some Spanish. I’m trying different (vegan) foods. Maybe I’ll try jetskiing (never done it) or scuba (also new) while I’m here. There’s a nearby fort/museum I may visit. There’s a botanical garden to explore. It’s a big bundle of new experiences.

Ask people for advice, and apply it – I ask people for advice a lot, especially when I’m starting something new. I also believe it’s important to apply the advice I get. Otherwise why bother asking for it? This usually gets me off to a good start, and then once I’m in motion, I’ll naturally pick up other ideas and resources along the way. In my last email to my mailing list, I asked my readers for suggestions on how to learn some Spanish. I received many suggestions within 24 hours. The top recommendations were Duolingo, Pimsleur, and Michel Thomas’ program. I started using Duolingo on the plane, and I’ve completed at least a dozen modules so far. A friend here already has Michel Thomas’ program and wanted to go through it again, and we’ve finished the first module yesterday. I also pick up words just by walking around the city and during brief interactions with locals.

Identifying and facing fears – I pay attention to irrational fears and worries I may have that could be getting in the way of more growth. Not all personal limitations cause problems, but some do. If I feel there’s some area where I’m unnecessarily limiting myself, I commit to turning that weakness into a strength, even if it takes years. Becoming comfortable with public speaking is a good example. When I was in grammar school, I always hated the speech contests. I’d get nervous and my hands would shake when I had to speak. I was terrible at it. This made me want to overcome that limitation and become ridiculously comfortable with public speaking. After three days of speaking off the cuff at the Conscious Heart Workshop last year, it’s rewarding to look back and laugh at how nervous speaking used to make me. Now the thing I used to fear most (impromptu speaking with no preparation) has becoming straightforward, easy, and fun. It just took a lot of practice.

Skill building – I like to identify interesting skills to develop. Sometimes I just choose random things that seem cool. When I was 14, I decided to learn to juggle, which took a few days. I like deep dives into skills that fascinate me. When I was 21, I read at least 10 books on card counting at blackjack. I practiced until I could consistently count down a deck in 14 seconds or less (as fast as I could physically flip through the cards). I made numerous trips from L.A. to Vegas to play in the casinos. I learned how to get comped meals and sometimes hotel rooms. I once got kicked out of a casino for winning too much too quickly. I had a blast! I also think about skills that could benefit me and my work in some way. I have the attitude that I can learn almost anything if I set my mind to it and practice enough. Usually I begin by reading a book on the subject to learn some basics. Then I’ll invest more time in a skill if it seems promising. I’ve probably picked up a lot of relatively useless skills over the years, like making really good guacamole, but I think this helps me learn new skills even faster. I rarely try to completely master each individual skill, so most of the time I don’t go much further than basic competence, like when I learned to play chess in 2006. But sometimes basic skills combine in unexpected ways.

Stretch experiences – Sometimes I push myself (or my friends do) to have a new experience. I follow the rule, Embrace the new. In 2014, I finally went skydiving for the first time, which was easy, but I’d never done it before. Speaking in another country for the first time was a stretch experience. Traveling through Europe for five weeks without paying for a place to stay was another. For some people, starting a conversation with a stranger is a stretch experience. The more I do things that feel a bit edgy to me, the more it melts fear, and the more it gets me thinking with fewer limitations. Walking to your edge and jumping is a great way to grow.

Forget about competition – I don’t see myself as being in competition with anyone. I’d rather learn from someone who’s beyond me in skill than feel envious. I also like helping out would-be competitors and sharing ideas with them openly and generously, and I find that other people often respond in kind. That’s one reason I uncopyrighted my work.

Being comfortable being different – Due to my color blindness, I only see 1/40th of the color shades that people with normal vision see, so I’m way below average when it comes to eyesight. Even children can distinguish colors better than I can. So early in life I learned that I don’t see the world the way other people do. But that became an advantage too. I learned to read the color names on crayons earlier than I otherwise might have. It was the only way I could tell blue from purple. :) I was also the first person in my school to get glasses (at age 7). That made me stand out as being different. It had nothing to do with being better. I simply grew up knowing that I wasn’t the same as everyone else and that this was okay. Since I had no control over these differences, I felt empowered to be myself and not worry about trying to fit in. By the time I was in high school, I realized that it was easier to attract good friends by shamelessly being myself. There was no need to pretend to be otherwise. I think that because of this, I had great self-esteem in high school. I embraced every quirky and unusual impulse I had and enjoyed being a bit eccentric.

Being comfortable as a beginner – I love being a beginner. I enjoy the rapid journey from total incompetence to basic competence. Nothing excites me as much as beginning something new. When I get my mind hooked into something, I can easily put in an 80+ hour week obsessing on it, especially during the early learning phase. I’m hugely incompetent at Spanish right now. I love it! When you’re incompetent, that’s where you enjoy the best laughs. Every mistake is funny. Despite investing so many thousands of hours in personal growth pursuits, I don’t feel anywhere close to mastery. I still feel like a baby at this. And I’ve found that this is very common with other authors, speakers, and trainers in this field. Personal growth is too vast. If you start thinking you’ve mastered it, you’re deluding yourself. Smaller skills and tradecrafts can be mastered, but when it comes to exploring personal growth, I find it better to focus on exploration, not mastery. If some degree of mastery happens along the way, that’s a nice bonus, but enjoy the journey regardless.

Celebrating mistakes – I enjoy the learning gains that come from making mistakes. I think this attitude comes from learning computer programming when I was 10. I learned early on that mistakes are just bugs, and every bug is a lesson that will make me a better programmer. It’s impossible to program and not make mistakes; you just have to accept it and learn from it. So with every new field or skill, I regard mistakes as bugs that will lead to lessons, and those lessons will make me better at the skill. Hence I like to dive in and make mistakes freely, so I can learn faster. I think it’s abject stupidity to fear mistakes, even if they sting a little. Laugh at yourself for getting stung! Then go out and get stung again.

Exploring around the edges – If I really want to master something, I like to go past the target and all around the edges of the skill. In the first few years I was learning public speaking, I practiced PowerPoint presentations, how-to speeches, persuasive speeches, humor speeches, speech contests, emotional speeches, storytelling, character-based speeches, gestures, act-outs, blocking, and more. I watched a lot of people give speeches. I bought DVDs of the World Champion speakers and attended their talks when they came to Vegas. I made friends with pro speakers and picked their brains, including some of the world champions of speaking. See my interview with David Brooks, the 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking. I’ve played disc golf a lot with Darren LaCroix, who’s the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking. Darren introduced me at my first workshop in 2009 and attended one of my 2010 workshops, and I’ve attended some of his workshops as well. I also joined a local improv troupe, practiced with them for three months, and performed in two shows. When I learned programming, I learned at least a dozen different languages and learned animation, audio programming, databases, game programming, etc. I also did a lot of this chaotic exploring with relationships and intimacy, partly to gain a better sense of what I liked and didn’t like.

Volunteer – I don’t have as much time for this as I used to, but in the past I would volunteer a lot. About 15 years ago, I served as the CEO of a non-profit corporation. This was great for meeting other service-oriented people. It was all unpaid work, and it was a terrific learning experience. When you volunteer you connect with other volunteers, and you’ll frequently find that volunteers are some of the coolest and most growth-oriented people around.

Growth-oriented friends – Building a social circle of growth-oriented friends keeps new ideas and opportunities flowing. Some interesting invites and challenges come via my friends, especially travel invites (including the invitation that led to this Mexico trip). One friend who works at Microsoft often explores ideas to increase productivity with me, and we bounce ideas off each other every week or so. Other friends are nudging me to go on a speaking tour in Europe with them this summer. One of the best ways to make more growth-oriented friends is to go to personal growth workshops since they naturally attract growth-oriented people.

Traveling with flexibility in mind – Just going somewhere new is stimulating. I especially like traveling with a one-way ticket and then going with the flow of inspiration and invitation. I don’t have a return flight booked yet for this Mexico trip, so I don’t know exactly when I’ll be back or what I’ll do after the conference. This gives me the freedom and flexibility to flow with whatever comes up.

No job – Not having a job and focusing on flexible income streams makes this possible. I keep my calendar open as much as possible. This gives me the space to dive into something that captures my attention and interest… and to have weeks to invest in it if I so desire. I also do my best to make it clear to the people in my life that exploring personal growth is a priority for me, so I don’t let people lock me into a set plan or schedule unless I feel good about the commitment. Some people might regard this as being commitment-phobic, but the truth is that I have such an abiding commitment to exploring personal growth that everything else in my life must fit within that frame.

Entrepreneurship – Learning to run a business and keep it sustainable offered a huge set of challenges that helped me grow. Since the business world is constantly changing, it keeps me on my toes. I have to keep learning and growing. I wrote about this in depth in the series Entrepreneurs Grow at Warp Speed.

Blogging – Of course sharing ideas is great for keeping the flow going. This brings lots of people to share ideas and resources with me as well. It also encourages me to keep growing and exploring, so I’ll have something interesting to share.

When I first got into personal growth during the early 90s, it was just an occasional feel-good side hobby. Pretty soon it became a committed side hobby. Then it became a side hobby with occasional bursts of obsession. And now it’s just an obsession. :)

As a contrast for the 10K hours concept, I also recommend this TED talk from Josh Kaufman about the flip side (20 hours to achieve basic competence):

Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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