Means to an End

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.

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