Means to an End

December 23, 2008 — 16 Comments

People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash and eat. When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. – Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

I just read this book called The Age of the Moguls, which is very good. The author doesn’t make this point explicitly but in the course of telling the stories of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Carnegie, Hearst, Standford, Du Pont and Field, he makes it quite clear: That behind every great fortune is not just a crime but a single man who for whatever reason outworked everyone around them.

A man that at 2 in the morning asleep in bed heard a slight irregularity in the manufacturing process and tracked it down with a lantern in pajamas. Or worked his own mines. Or wrote 6,000 letters a year. Or spent every second trying to figure out what made a newspaper perfect.

Outliers, Gladwell’s new book – which the reviews completely misunderstood and didn’t appreciate in the way it deserves – brings up his 10,000 hours concept again. Since that’s such a nice, big round number I think it’s really easy to accept without really absorbing. It’s almost too sticky. You sort of forget that every one of those hours was an individual choice and propelled into being by some personal force.

Gladwell believed he got his hours as a science writer at the Washington Post meeting late night deadlines and educating himself to write on complex subjects. Vanderbilt got his ferrying people into Manhattan as a teenager. Andrew Carnegie was the personal secretary to a railroad genius that soon put him in charge of his own division.

People don’t understand my criticsm of the Brazen Careerist kids but I think it boils down to me inferring that they’ve somehow come to believe that it’s all very easy. That to become a great marketer you just have to talk about marketing a lot. Or that career advice comes from people who look at careers. They’ve just assumed that it the authority they’re after is fundamentally a product of projecting it long enough to feel natural. It’s the same entitlement in the little quips and anecdotes that let people reduce it down to some sort of math problem. Like the real secret to Seinfeld was the clever way that he marked his calendar every morning.

I’m trying to think about it this way: if you envision the end result – a mastery of some sort – 10 or 15 years down the road, what are you doing right now to contribute to that? Cutting your teeth, when you examine the expression requires both a time when and an subject to cut them on. At some point, that has to stop being a metaphor.

There is a lazy hubris in just throwing around that number or thinking you know what you want to be. What about – and I think this is what the people we’re talking about have actually done – figuring out what you need to subject yourself to become approximately that person? Deciding the conditions under which you can crystallize and making them a reality instead of pompously assuming they’ll come about naturally. Lots of people can talk about what they’d like to be, very few can confidentially tell you what they’re doing about it now.

When I look back on the period a long time from now, I should be able to see two or three fortunate convergences that shaped what I became. A clear indication that the work I’m doing now was instrumental in cumulating advantage. Because when I got out of bed I had the same conversation that Marcus had, decided that ‘faking it until you make it’ is bullshit and got to work. And finally, that it was all the same that nobody gave me any credit until I cashed the hours in.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

16 responses to Means to an End

  1. I like the elaboration on your criticism of BC – I knew that there was more to your remarks than snide comments directed at a relatively well-known organization, and your reasoning for your opinion of them really fits in with the general theme of your blog.

    Did you see Chris Anderson linking his experiences of changing projects every three years to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept? I thought it was a bit of a stretch, cramming that many hours of practice into such a short stretch of time, especially considering Gladwell talked about the extraordinary opportunities enjoyed by many of the ‘outliers’ during their youth. The gist of Anderson’s article, though, was still interesting – work hard to master a particular skill, but always be willing to move on to something new.

  2. Great post. One of your best so far I think.

  3. Your post qualifies why college doesn’t attract the interest it clearly should. College should be a place where people gain the mindset of doing rather than regurgitating information to a sage at the front of the room (1). At least, a class should relate the material in a broader sense. College has become a training ground for cogs in a machine (2), seemingly teaching little actual business acumen. Reading the book in class is more productive than listening to the lecture. In a class of 100 or more, new information isn’t introduced by the professor. Tests come straight from the book. Professors lecture straight from the book or from supplementary power points. College is disappointing. People wait to be handed a degree, in turn waiting to be handed a job. No one seems to have a long-term goal, any idea of a business to run (in the business college, of course), or wants to do hard work. A class starting with an assignment of a five-page, single spaced paper caused one-fourth of the students to drop by the next class. College, especially in fly-over America, has become lackluster.

    I don’t include myself in the “doing” group yet. I don’t know what to do about it, or how to start.

    1. http://www.openeducation.net/2008/10/28/a-vision-of-students-today-some-additional-thoughts-from-michael-wesch/

    2. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2005/03/the_everworseni.html

  4. Glenn,

    I wasn’t so sure there was a problem with Anderson’s post. I actually thought it was very good. If you’re doing something like editing a magazine while living in a foreign country almost every waking second is a formative training exercise. Gladwell used a few similar examples too – where people’s experiences essentially consumed their lives for short intense periods of time.

  5. “And finally, that it was all the same that nobody gave me any credit until I cashed the hours in.”

    How would you define cashing out?

  6. I think with some people who maybe say they want to do something and don’t do much about it, the situation is they don’t really want to do the thing they say they want to, they just want the external things that would come with success in that field such as money, social respect, status, etc.

    They should be more honest with themselves and instead of saying like you know, “I want to be a great musician” say, “I want to be rich and respected and have girls all swarming about me” which are the things someone who says they want to be a musician but doesn’t work hard it at really wants usually.

    I suppose it’s just not socially correct usually to just announce you just want things like respect/money/girls/status without saying how or what you want to do to get those things, so people just take or claim to be taking these false paths they aren’t really interested in for that exact reason, due to the social correctness issue that makes a lie out of many of our communications.

  7. I’ve followed you pretty much since the beginning, and this is by far the absolute best thing you’ve ever written on this site. It ties together all the points you’ve been making all this time.

    You talked before about not knowing what your job is. I think you’ve found it. If you consider that a lot of people will be growing up, working hard and finding their individual ways into influence in the economy and way of life that is going to dominate once the current bullshit ends, mostly because of you and Tucker, it’s obvious that this is, at least in part, what you’re meant to do.

    I hate to state the obvious, but what I’m saying is that I, at the very least, would not be the person today without the things you write, and that you should never, ever stop writing them. I owe you a hell of a lot, man.

    Merry Christmas.

  8. That’s much too nice, thank you.

  9. Excellent post. This is by far one of the my favorite posts you’ve written.

    I may be wrong in my thinking, but I believe the ability to do hard work is the most important factor to determining success in life. Putting the time in whatever you do is essential, and I think a lot of people believe its natural ability/talent and nothing more. On one hand, that’s a shame. On the other, its a great thing. There’s tons of opportunity for those who take it.

  10. Steve Sailer gives Malcolm a good trashing in his review of Outliers:

    http://www.vdare.com/sailer/081221_malcolm.htm

    (“Malcolm in a Muddle: Or, How Gladwell Gladhands The Cultural Establishment”)

  11. Not exactly, Dominic.

    von Hammerstein-Equord: “I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Most often two of these qualities come together. The officers who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Those who are stupid and lazy make up around 90% of every army in the world, and they can be used for routine work. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately.”

    The clever and lazy people put in those hours to hone the ability to do things quickly and competently. They do things so they don’t have to re-do anything and then go do other stuff.

  12. Sailer’s post is obnoxious and stupid.

  13. Tremendous post. Enough to rouse me to exit out of google reader and comment on one of your posts for the first time.

    This also relates to your earlier post (“A Side to Err”) about histories, where you said that people don’t set out to create an accumulated history of repeated behavior (I think that you were referring specifically to running but I remember it better when I think about reading), it just happens as a natural consequence of repeating what you love because that’s just what you do. I’m sure I butchered that interpretation but it fits well with what you just wrote — that you don’t just arrive at that 10,000 hours because you keep saying over and over that you will, it happens because in each of the thousands of instances where you could have either gotten to work or just turned on the TV, you hunkered down and got the job done. Bravo.

  14. “Shortcuts are for pussies. You gotta work your ass off.”

    -Brock Lesnar

    Same idea, different phrasing.

  15. so you think that the quality is preferable to the quantity of what you do?

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