In 1999, I was just about done with the mental health profession. I was an eight-year veteran in the field, licensed and managing several programs in Boston, MA. I was newly married and wondering how in the world I was going to grow in a profession I loved while living in one of the most expensive cities in America.
That was the end of it – too much frustration and not enough opportunity. Until one-day, a former colleague and friend of mine shared with me an amazing story about how he made some changes in his life, which ultimately led to his dream job in the field. I gained a significant amount of insight from his story, not the least of which was the idea of hard work and dedication to becoming the very best I could become. Rather than expecting things to come to me, rather than passing up on opportunities or going through the motions, I decided I’d be the initiator. Rather than being average at a lot of things, I chose to become very good at a few things. I set new goals in this direction and have spent the past several years learning, growing, and taking advantage of new opportunities that came my way. It has made all the difference in terms of my personal enjoyment and the general satisfaction I get from doing my work.
So needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I decided to pick up Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers. One of the compelling arguments he makes in his analysis of success is, in fact, the very argument I began to make and test years ago. In his book, he states that psychologists and neurologists who study performance and expertise, in general, believe there is a magic number that exists for true mastery to exist. That number is 10,000 hours of practice. My excitement about this phenomenon, however, is not the amount of time required but the idea that shifting your time and energy in new and more productive ways can have such a powerful impact.
Things get even more intriguing when Gladwell chooses to look more closely at groups of people who are gifted and successful in their fields. When you analyze these groups you begin to see that innate talent plays a smaller and smaller role in distinguishing one person from another. At that level, the factor that plays the biggest role is in fact preparation. He goes on to argue that at some point innate ability has a cut off point, meaning you need to possess enough ability to be “good enough”, and after that, most of success comes from the opportunities you are given and more importantly, what you choose to do with those opportunities.
So for fun, let’s assume that a large-majority of people who enter the mental health field and successfully complete graduate school do, in fact, possess some level of talent and innate ability as helping professionals. If this were the case, determinants of success would appear to center around one’s approach to skill development along with one’s ability and willingness to take advantage of available opportunities.
Gladwell continues his discussion in this area when he examines the work of a psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson at Berlin’s Elite Academy of Music. In the 1990’s Dr. Ericsson, and his colleagues, looked at a group of extremely talented violinists and analyzed these musicians in three groups. Group one were those students with the potential to become world-class violinists. Group two represented those students judged to be “very good”, and group three were students who were good but unlikely to ever play professionally.
As they studied the progression of their careers, from early age to present day, they found that none of the students were simply “naturals”, meaning none were musicians who could simply play without any work or effort. They also did not find any students in the three groups who lacked innate ability and simply overcame that deficit through hard work. Their research suggested that once a musician is “good enough” to be admitted to the Berlin academy the only thing that distinguished the three groups was how hard each of them worked. By the age of twenty, the students who were the best in their class, the true masters, were practicing significantly more than everyone else. By this age, group three had totaled 4,000 hours of practice time while group two totaled 8,000 hours. And how many practice hours did group one have by age twenty? You guessed it -10,000 hours.
In study after study, Malcolm Gladwell finds this pattern, and he offers some rather interesting examples as proof, from Mozart, to the Beatles, to Bill Gates.
One of the things I preach to people who are willing to listen is the idea of changing your routine. I call it “Creating an Exercise Program for Your Career” and in many respects it is based on the principles Gladwell defines through the 10,000 hour rule.
The idea is simple. Once you have thoroughly examined your interests, passions and goals take some time to do an inventory of how you spend your days. Then, make an effort to redefine those days by dedicating more time to things within the field you are passionate about. Instead of spending two hours a night watching baseball or reality TV, use that time to engage in activities that are directly related to your goals. Learn something new by volunteering your time, spend two hours researching a topic of interest to you, or read a book on a special area within mental health. It can be any number of things. If you choose to take this step and are committed to this effort for six months, I promise you will see an incredible difference. At the end of that time period you will be more knowledgeable, more experienced, more motivated and better positioned in the marketplace than you were six months prior.
If you’d like a copy of the worksheet I use feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send it to you.
David P. Diana is a counselor, author, and a director for a behavioral healthcare organization. He writes a weekly blog on sales and marketing for counselors (www.davidpdiana.com)