Nathanael Garrett Novosel, November 15 2023

How Good Do You Want to Be? (How Much Do You Want to Grow?)

One of the most important things in life is picking a direction and a destination. If growth is the point, then you need to determine what areas of your life you wish to improve and by how much. Since we all only have 24 hours per day, we have to choose how we spend that time to realize our dreams. In short, we need to determine how good we want to be at something and then exert the required effort over time to get that good.

I've written extensively on deciding what you want to do in your life in terms of various forms of growth that exist (e.g., social, financial, spiritual, relationship, vocational), so I won't cover that here. However, I've only mentioned the balance of setting a goal that's desirable but also believable briefly, so I'll expand upon that quickly. Effectively, you want to select a long-term goal that can motivate you to put in a ton of effort over time and then complement that with short-term goals that can keep you motivated and fulfilled along the way. For example, you might want to become president of the United States but would then want to set initial goals of getting a certain amount of education or running for local office to make progress toward that goal that you can see and feel. For any ambitious goal, you will—to paraphrase Taken—need to develop a very particular set of skills that you will need to acquire over a very long time. It's the ability and willingness to put in that time and effort that will lead you to grow in the way that you need toward attaining the outcome you want.

With that background, the focus of this post is on how to know what will be required to get to a certain skill level to help you decide whether you are willing and able to do that. If you're not familiar with how the typical growth trajectory works for people, it typically improves drastically at first and then you will experience diminishing returns, like this:

In plain terms, you will generally be terrible the first time you try anything. Babies fall often as they learn to walk. Steph Curry missed plenty of shots before he learned to hit half-court shots consistently. Michael Jordan famously didn't make his varsity team at first. But you can get good very quickly. An entire industry is actually based on this: the trick shot industry. Anyone can get from missing some insanely improbably shot to hitting it in anywhere from a few tries in minutes to many tries in hours. But to get very good consistently, you have to do much more than that (of course).

The question is, however, how long does it take to get good? Well, there are two milestones that have become popularized: 20 hours to become decent, and 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. 20 hours can be attained in weeks, while 10,000 hours requires years. In the 20-hour idea time frame, we're talking about taking enough time to learn how to do something and then practicing it enough until it becomes repeatable from "muscle memory". In the 10,000-hour time frame, we're talking about taking enough time engrossing yourself in a discipline until you become the very best in the field.

So you can rephrase the original question of this post as, "Is this a 0-hour, 20-hour, or 10,000-hour growth area for you?" In other words, do you never want to experience something, do you want to expose yourself to it casually to learn a new skill when you need it or enjoy something you like once in a while, or do you want to strive to be the best at it? Most people will find 1-2 things to focus on enough to become experts, several areas to become proficient enough to be handy around the house or with computers, and decide early on that certain sports, activities, and subjects are just of no interest to them at all. Some people like doing a little bit of everything and become jacks-of-all-trades, spending time getting proficient in many areas. And those few dedicated individuals will pick several areas and become experts, from Peyton Manning learning football, comedy, and business to Leonardo Da Vinci being an artist, a scientist, and an inventor.

This is the question you want to ask yourself. The earlier you decide to be good or great at something, the more time you have in your life to develop the craft. However, don't let that discourage you if you find your passion later in life. Jack Black famously learned to play the guitar at 23, and there are plenty of stories—from Rocky to The Rookie—about people who get their dream shot much later in life than others. No matter when you begin, you can always get better if you devote more time to improving.

Now, I have to acknowledge certain realities that exist. You do have to work under the constraints of the reality of your genetics, which influence what your growth potential can be and also influence what you will be interested in. You also have to handle the financial situation you were raised in, your social environment, and things like diseases you might have or the responsibilities you have in your life that require a certain amount of time to uphold. Those all might exist. But just remember that there's a fine line between a reason and an excuse: a person who only does 3 hours instead of 5 because of family obligations is for a good reason; a person who does nothing and blames family obligations while watching a lot of TV or browsing social media for hours is just making an excuse. If you want the outcome, enjoy the process, or believe in your potential enough, you will do it. If you don't, you won't. It's that simple, and you'll have to deal with the reality that one of those three things might not be true just like you have to deal with the reality of certain constraints that exist.

So, I'll ask the questions again: How good do you want to be? How much can you grow toward your life goals?  How much do you need to get good enough to do everything you want to do? When you figure that out, you'll have a clear direction, a clear path forward, and a decent sense at how long it'll take to get to your destination. You can always change your destination or adjust your course, but make sure you do it every time because it's what you want or believe is best for you and not because you let external factors beat you down. Continue moving in the direction of what matters to you and cut out what is detracting you from success, and you'll continue to improve and feel a sense of progress and success in your life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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