10,000 hours of soft skills

Malcolm Gladwell once wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of practicing a skill to achieve mastery. Do I agree? Yes, absolutely. I think with that much dedication to a practice, there is no doubt you will succeed at what you are doing. There is no doubt you will outperform 90% of your peers.

Gladwell’s rule, however, is not so black-and-white. My belief is that as time goes on, the rule will start to have more stipulations and context to make sense. Why so? Technological advancement. We innovate at least 2x faster than we did 40 years ago. Apple releases a new iPhone every 6 months and an increase in competition will likely only cause that time to shorten as brands compete to be the first to introduce a piece of technology.

We don’t have the same luxury that Beethoven did putting in 10000 hours behind a piano before that piano is an electronic keyboard. Even if we dedicated a full 24 hours everyday to practicing a hard skill, it’s likely that it still wouldn’t be enough time before that technical skill’s needs have drastically changed. Granted there are some instances where only minor changes will make 10000 hours possible, but there will also be some instances where, chase as you may – you will never get to 10,000 hours. Technological change may render practice hours useless.

But that’s not bad news. In fact, that’s news you can embrace.

Essentially technological change should (in theory) “even the playing field” for fast-learning, knowledge-hungry workers to make just as much as an impact in their profession as the skilled and experienced veterans.

I was asked to make my first Facebook page at age 20 in exchange for free pizza. I had been on the Facebook platform for only 2 years. In 2007 Facebook was only open to students enrolled in a university – I was only able to join once I had a valid .edu email address from the university I was attending. That also meant no companies and no non-college students were on the platform. When businesses started to join Facebook around 2009, what made me qualified to make a page? When I think about it – really nothing. The only thing that qualified me to set up a business page was familiarity with setting up a page and knowing how to navigate my way around. I was equally qualified having spent 2 years on Facebook as someone who could have learned the same thing in 2 days on Facebook.

Businesses were just starting to get on Facebook – what did I know about what to do with a business page? Nothing. It was new – no one had the experience to know what to do. There was nothing for me to learn FROM. Again, I was just as qualified having spent 2 years on Facebook, as someone who had spent 2 days on Facebook.

Throw in curveballs like March’s Facebook algorithm change, and Facebook levels the playing field YET AGAIN. All of the sudden things that you’ve learned over the course of 1 year are irrelevant. Essentially I had just as much knowledge being a social media marketer for 4 years as someone with maybe 2 months of experience. We were both facing the same issues and problems – we had to build something on a new set of rules. Things that “worked” for me 2 years ago, aren’t the same things that will work this year. (Another reason its important to just find what works for you for social media, which I blog about ALL THE TIME, right?)

I’ll never try to sell you on the years of experience I have, because despite having 10 years of experience with a platform like Facebook, I know that it doesn’t always make me any more qualified than someone with a mere 2 years. There are other things that make me more qualified than the time I’ve spent dealing with social media for businesses.

There may still be benefits to some past experience, but what technological change has done was put less focus on the need to develop “technical” skills [like Beethoven and the piano, or Bill Gates and code] and more of a need to shift what we practice to SOFT skills. It doesn’t have to be the practice in using the literal piece of technology that sets us apart, its the practice in learning how to live with and utilize any new technology that will create success in professions that are the most affected by technological change. That’s 10000 hours we can definitely put in quickly and easily to set us up for future success. And my 4 years of practicing these “soft skills” in the realm of social media is something i will no doubt try to sell you on!

Here are some “soft skills” I find are worth practicing when technological change makes it increasingly harder to master the technical:

1. Getting passionate about a particular industry. This at least gives you the same “realm” to keep practicing in and reduces learning curves so you can focus on practicing. Think of it this way – it wouldn’t be smart to take a football team that practices on grass and change their field to turf in the middle of the season. Why? It detracts from the progression of practice. Extra time is now needed to get used to variables like cleat grip. It requires shifting focus and a little bit of unlearning before getting back to progressing in the skills that matter and win games. Keeping the environments relatively the same allows you to get closer to doing the practice where it matters. While what you practice may become irrelevant quickly, the realm in which you do it in will stick around a lot longer – and that matters when it comes to mastery!

2. Being Adaptive. Technology brings change. You have to be willing to practice keeping an open mind, finding new ways of doing things, and letting go of old ways if its necessary. Be open to learning new tools and evaluating them. They won’t always work. But you’re mind needs to keep trying, because there will be tools that do work, will stick and become true gamechangers to the way we do things and our eventual success.

3. Being Aware/ Taking Notice. This is one of the biggest things. You have to practice noticing whats going on. You should understand how technology is changing things and have an understanding of the past, present and predictable future. If you can excel at listening and being aware the things that may be irrelevant to your trade right now may become the most relevant things 3 months from now – you get the added benefit of awareness and knowledge without necessarily having the experience.

4. Experimenting. We learned experiments in grade school because that’s what technology is. A bunch of experiments. Some will succeed some will fail. Practice conducting them. Understand variables and control groups and you will excel in being quicker and better at determining “best fit”. A series of best fits, builds.

5. Problem Solving & Critical thinking. I can’t stress this enough. If technology evens the playing field and I, as a 10 year veteran of my trade is now faced with the same problems and trends as the 2 year starter, success is going to be dependent not on what i’ve learned about my trade in the past, but how I can solve the problem. Sometimes it requires a bit of informed risk, outside the box thinking, research and willingness more so than it does past experience. Practice sharpening your ability to think and solve problems.
What other soft skills are worth 10000 hours of practice?