Up in the Air for 10,000 Hours

Thinking about new media trends and life choices in 2010

I recently saw the new George Clooney film, Up in the Air.

This is a movie that will make you think about your life and what is important in it and about it. Up in the Air will make you think about what you are good at doing, being and why. At least it did for me.

Becoming a Master Flyer

Ryan Bingham, who Clooney plays in the film, travels more than 300 days per year. He is good at air travel. He is a Master Flyer who through an elite status has a travel experience unlike the average occasional airline passenger.

In 2009, I spent 168 days away from home (work and holidays) and earned more than 200,000 air miles. I am a Master Flyer, too. On average, I spend about 10 hours a week in airplanes and airports. This adds up to about 500 hours a year. I started my Master Flyer apprenticeship in 1983 when Greg Jones and I founded Lighthouse Software. I continued that pace through 1988 when I founded MagazineWeek and my travel dropped back to business normal.

I hit the road again in 1995, two years after Laura Pittman and I founded Blue Dolphin Direct. I continued through 2000 when we flipped Blue Dolphin Direct into Blue Dolphin Magazines and my travel schedule once again dropped back to business normal. Then Laura and I founded Mequoda Group in 2004 and my travel schedule kicked into high gear one more time. That is, more or less, 17 years of very frequent travel or about 8,500 hours in airports and airplanes. By the end of 2012, I will pass 10,000 hours at my current pace. And like Ryan Bingham, I am good at air travel, and I enjoy being good at it.

Malcolm Gladwell: 10,000 hours to achieve mastery

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice is the number required to gain mastery over any complex activity. In the book, he demonstrates that for hockey players, rock stars, violinists and others, 2,000 to 5,000 hours of practice brings competency.  Those who rise to the top of their game or profession have raw talent, and they hone that talent with more than 10,000 hours of practice. And not just marking time practice, but 10,000 hours spent pushing themselves to be the best at what they do. Gladwell concludes that humans simply must have 10,000 hours of practice to master any complex activity.

You are what you do: Is that all there is to life?

As I thought about the movie, and did the math on my quest to become a Master Flyer, I asked myself what other activities have I gained mastery over in my 54-years on the planet. And what activities might I still be in the running for the coming years. The latter being the more important question.

I first thought about sailing. I joined a sailing club in 2008. I took the courses in classroom and on the water to be keelboat and coastal certified on boats up to fifty feet in length. Once I hit the 40 hours of time on the water required to be let loose with the boat on my own, I made runs from Boston to Marblehead and Newburyport and back. In two years, I have accumulated just over 200 hours on the water. At this pace, I can hope to become a Master Sailor in another 98 years.  Competency looks to be the more reasonable goal for this lifetime.

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Mastery in 21st century digital media strategy

My thoughts then turn to my 34-year career in media. Have I gained, or will I gain, mastery in some aspect of my profession?  Here is my napkin math on three roles I play today:

Media Consultant: First the math… The frequent flying has been tied to consulting. I have spent 17 years of my 34-year career teaching other publishers to discover and reach their goals, first at Lighthouse Software, then at Blue Dolphin Direct and now at Mequoda Group. On average I consult with about 15 clients at any given time and dedicate about 60 hours to each over the course of a year. (I will leave out the 1,000 hours a year I spend researching, analyzing, teaching and writing about new media trends, as that is not pure consulting). Nine hundred hours per year for 17 years adds up to 15,300 hours of consulting. So by Gladwell’s 10,000-hour standard, I may already be a Master Publishing Consultant.

Now it’s true that publishing in 2010 spans a vast and interrelated set of platforms and skills. Mastering the Media Pyramid, which I study and teach as a Mequoda System core concept, is not the same as mastering the creation, production and marketing of all the different media within it.

I don’t know anyone who has spent the time I have spent helping others understand their digital media business and their goals. And still it makes me ponder all that I do not know of which is knowable, and still more that is unknowable, in the digital media space.

And so I do the math for other activities that occupy a big part of my professional life…

Teacher: I began teaching for Computer Craft Learning Centers back in 1982. I taught Apple DOS, Wordstar and Visicalc. I was asked to develop and pilot a new program. In 1983, I was named Computer Craft Teacher of the Year. In 2010, I will lead more than 50 full-day programs. It seems that teaching and consulting go hand and hand for me. So let’s estimate that I have taught 300 hours a year for about 20 years, or about 6,000 hours of classroom teaching. No mastery here… just competency for now.

Writer: I love to write. For me, like every student, writing begins in school. I started taking writing seriously in Mr. Baldwin’s 8th grade English class, which I began in fall 1969. Since then I have written dozens of short stories, hundreds of papers, hundreds of articles, several books and thousands of emails.

Side note: I am a hunt and peck typist who averages about 20 words a minute. This fact almost got me kicked out of journalism school. My professor kept mumbling something about the world belonging to those who can type. Personally, I am still holding out for the speech-to-text recognition software I saw on a Star Trek episode back in 1967.

So let’s say I have spent an average of 10 hours per week writing since fall 1969. With time off for bad behavior, that would equate to about 2,000 weeks or 20,000 hours of writing.  I will leave it to you, my readers, to decide whether Master Writer is a title I deserve.

Mastery in my personal life

I did the same math for my personal life. Time spent working at being a good husband, father, friend and, now, grandfather.  Suffice to say that I have met the 10,000-hour requirement for three of the four, yet mastery is not a word I would use to describe my skills or status in any of those roles. These roles are complex and always changing as loved ones age and situations change. So little is repeated. Again, it appears that competency is the best I can hope for in my personal life.

My hope is that this post might inspire you to think about how you spend your time in the years ahead. I know it has done just that for me. If you see Up in the Air, post a comment and let me know what you think and how you feel about the film and its message.


    For those interested in this subject, check out Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent Is Overated. It is a better book in every way. While he, like Gladwell, says that there are factors out of an individuals control that help determine who gets to the mastery level in their chosen field, he writes, it is still ultimately up to the individual to put in the work. after getting over the initial shock of how much time is required to master a given skill, I actually found it heartening to know that it is ones own passion and drive to accumulate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that will determine whether that level of mastery is attained. Remember the adverage American watches 5 hours of television a day. If you were wondering where you will find the time to practice, there it is right there… Cancel your cable! When you are on you death bed, I doubt you will say to your self, “Im sure glad I watched season 9 of American Idol back in 2010.”

    Peter S.

    Hi Don,

    Great post! Lots of insights into you and your career. I really enjoyed reading it.

    But I disagree with Malcolm Gladwell on one point. There are complex activities that do not require 10,000 hours to master. For instance, I know an eight-year-old who can beat me every time at playing checkers.

    (Go ahead. Make up your own joke!)

    Additionally, some people have a natural “unconscious competence” at certain disciplines they haven’t spent 10,000 hours trying to master. I’ll bet we all know someone who is extremely competent at some skill, but doesn’t know how he does what he does. That’s “unconscious competence.”

    And then there’s simply raw talent. I’ve been told that Jack Nicklaus broke 80 the very first time he ever played golf.

    You can still aspire to be a great sailor without investing 10,000 hours at the helm. I aspire to achieve some level of mastery at my newfound hobby of panoramic and virtual reality photography, and I don’t have 10,000 hours left.

    Gladwell astutely recognizes what it took for some people to achieve mastery of their discipline, but there are plenty of exceptions. By suggesting that mastery is only achievable through such a great investment of time and effort discourages some people from ever trying.

    — Peter

    Bruce C.


    For some time now I have followed your daily emails ‘messages’ and enjoyed the content. Today I got to know a little about the ‘messenger’ and enjoyed getting to know a little about more about you.

    Bruce Conn

    PS: I’m a lifetime sailor, have a Hunter 42′ we cruise on the west coast, and – as the saying goes – “if ever you think you know all there is to know about the sea, prepare to die”.

    Jeanne G.

    Don- I hated that movie, it was soooo slow. I kept waiting for something to happen and nothing did. However, I loved your analogy and spin on it. Hope all is well. Gryphon Daily has launched!


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