Let’s Face The Cold Hard Truth About Talent

I started taking electric bass lessons.

I used to play electric bass quite a bit (even studied it in a post-secondary environment). I worked very hard at it. I had private lessons, would attend jam sessions, played in a couple of bands and a whole lot more. At around the same time, I became much more interested in writing and managed to finagle a career as a freelance music journalist. I spent a whole lot of time interviewing lots of rock stars (hundreds… maybe even thousands… over the years). No joke. In 1989, my first assignment was interviewing Tommy Lee from Motley Crue (I jokingly tell people that my entire career has been downhill from there). Was I any good at playing the electric bass? I was. Was going to be the next Jaco Pastorius or Stanley Clarke? Maybe if I just practiced harder?

It’s a tough talk to have.

I haven’t played the bass in over twenty years. I’m beyond rusty. It’s frustrating. On top of that, I’ve spent a lot of time watching what contemporary bassists are doing, and I am amazed at just how much progress has been made with the instrument. Have you ever heard of Michael Manring? Watch what he can do with the electric bass…

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

I’ve been watching a lot of videos like this over the past few months, as my interest in the electric bass continues to grow. Personally, I find that it is opening up many different creative roads for me, and just thinking about the language of music has been inspiring (not a bad thing). I was thinking back to the time when I decided that I didn’t want to pursue a career as a professional musician because the calling of a life in media was far more interesting. The truth is that I also wasn’t that talented with the electric bass. I was good. I could play. But, I clearly didn’t have the “secret sauce.” It also became apparent to me recently (after watching several interviews with these stellar musicians) that they, themselves, were unable to communicate where their talent comes from. They all seem to chalk it up to practice and hard work. I don’t believe them.

Malcolm Gladwell is wrong.

In his bestselling business book, Outliers, Gladwell points to the now-famous notion that anybody whose work/art that we appreciate in the world has put in the hard work to master it. The 10,000 hour rule (as it has become known). I’m not so sure. Here’s my take-away: if you practice the electric bass really hard (let’s call is 10,000 hours), my guess is that the vast majority of people will know how to play the electric bass very well, but very few of them will be true bass players. You can practice writing for 10,000 hours, and my guess is that the vast majority of people will be better at writing, but very few of them will be true writers. The same goes for painting, photography… and maybe even the work that you do?

There are those who can play the bass and then there are bass players. Those that have a gift for it.

It’s a tough concept to wrap one’s head around, but it’s true. The real experts seem to be the ones who put in their 10,000 hours BUT they also have some semblance of a gift/knack/aptitude for it. Of course, there are varying levels of skills and people’s opinions as to who is great at something is relative. That’s fine. This isn’t a negative concept, either. I’d hate for anybody to think that this blog post is intended to deflate your tires or make anyone feel like they’re not great at the work that they’re doing. Talent is not always something that can be developed with a simple application of a little elbow grease. Talent is usually something that shines when one individual taps into something that they actually have an aptitude for and can then nurture it to their advantage.

What do you think? Can everyone be a bass player or will most people simply know how to play bass?


10,000 Hours And 20% Of Your Work Time

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chunk would?

Time is always the number one concern in our lives, isn’t it? Feel free to blame consciousness. The clock is always ticking… and it’s ticking down. Some of the greatest thinking of our time comes from people who are more acutely aware of just how limited our time on this earth is. Work is no different. We’re constantly in this strange battle for time. Be it deadlines, product launches, responding to emails, starting a meeting on time, getting home on time, finding the time to blog or whatever. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

How much time will this take?

Because of the human addiction to time, we want things to happen fast, faster and fastest. We want raises, promotions and more as quickly as possible. This fascination with speed and business is especially prevalent in the digital marketing space. Because it is still (somewhat) nascent, employers are paying a premium for talent and that talent has expectations that they will be moved up as quickly as possible. We see it in the work that the industry is doing as well. Brands want to know how quickly it will take them to get a million fans on Facebook. They want to know how quickly they can change the brand narrative by engaging on Twitter. They want to know how much quick money can be made if they blast out another email promotion. But, here’s the thing:

It takes time to get good. It takes a lot of time to get great.

With that, the world keeps on spinning. So, we’re obsessed with speed and time. Clients want things to happen fast. Agencies have to appear like they are moving faster (to stay ahead). Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master something in his bestselling book, Outliers. Last week, he revisited his 10,000 hour theory in The New Yorker blog post titled, Complexity And The Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule: “No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: ‘achievement is talent plus preparation.’ But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that ‘the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.’ In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second–and more crucially for the theme of Outliers–the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focused on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. ‘He has talent by the truckload,’ I wrote of Joy. ‘But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.’”

Is it possible to be great at something in less than 10,000 hours? Or, asked another way, can we get there any faster?

According to Gladwell (and others), it doesn’t apply to everything (obviously). Some people may be inherently gifted with specific genetic and physiological gifts that make them more prone to be successful when you can match that specific gift with a specific area of expertise (Gladwell’s blog post points to areas like high jumping, etc…), but some things do have to be learned and nurtured through experience and more education. Marketing is one of those things. It takes time. Lots of time to get great at it.

What about focus?

While we’re focusing on time and how to get focused enough to earn those ten thousand hours, Google is either slowly ridding themselves of (or has already done away with) their infamous 20% rule (where every employee is expected to spend 20% of their work time focused on a personal project – no matter how outlandish). The Wall Street Journal reported today in the news item, Google’s 20% Mistake, that “one can’t just throw money and bodies at innovation–there is no correlation between the size of a company’s R&D budget and its innovation rate. Most ideas are bad ones, so you have to entertain a lot of them to find the real gems. On average, a company needs 3,000 ideas to get 300 of them formalized, 125 of them into small experimentation, ten of them officially budgeted, 1.7 launched–and one that makes money… On paper, eliminating it might look like it saves money. But the signal it sends is that management, not the workers, know what the most productive use of your time is. It’s a step down the road to a company of clock-punchers.”

Time is money.

For my time (and money), all of this is less about management decisions and how HR is going to deal with the fallout, and much more about the macro issue of time well spent and how we’re all struggling in a world that is expecting us to put in our 10,000 hours and find our true groove. We can’t look to our bosses on this, we have to look within. After reading these two powerful pieces on how much time it takes to get great at (mostly) anything, the only thought I had was this: am I, personally, committed to the 10,000 hour rule and am I spending enough of the other time working on something personal, out there and possibly bigger than me?

Get less worried about how long something takes and get focused on how much better you are getting over time.  


My First Job

I was in grade 10. It could have been grade 9.

My entire grade was taking a summer trip overseas. I wanted to become a million by the time I was 18, so the clock was ticking. Tick. Tock. Instead of having fun with my friends, I had bigger aspirations for my summer. I wanted to buy an electric bass… and a stereo. I had to earn the money to get the sugar. I worked in a cosmetic factory. It sucked. My job – day in and day out – was taking this round piece of white plastic, dabbing the center with some glue and using wax paper I would push into place the mascara. From there, I would screw on the see-through top, place them a box, get the right count, tape up the box and put it on a palette. I don’t think it rained one day that summer. At least, it didn’t feel like it did. I wouldn’t know. I was stuck inside a dirty warehouse all day that was filled with people who had no passion, desire or drive. They just did their jobs. Collected their money. Time to make the donuts.

The food sucked too. 

I wasn’t a brown bag lunch kind of guy (I’m still not). We’d hit up some greasy spoon or grab something quick at the corner donut shop. It was in a part of town that had lower income apartments and random businesses. It was a long haul to a cruddy fast food joint. It wasn’t even worth the trip. I hated the work and only semi-appreciated the minimum wage. It wasn’t about the work… it was about the means to the end. By the end of the summer, I got the electric bass that I wanted… the stereo too. I had even made enough money, to put some of it aside. You can bet that I appreciated ownership of the bass and stereo.

Hard work.

It’s all about the hard work. Not just at the job – each and every day – but about putting in the hard work. Always. Luck is a lot of hard work. You can chastise Malcolm Gladwell all you like, but he’s right in Outliers about the 10,000 hours. It may not be an exact number, but it speaks to the time and dedication it requires to be successful. We hear about the random stories or the lottery winners and we’re fooled into believing that luck has something to do with success. I didn’t want to work in that warehouse. While that was my first job, it wasn’t my last hard job. I must have a thing for hard jobs. I worked at a frozen yogurt place (part-time) one summer in high school. The customers were borderline disgusting (“can you put in a few more strawberries?” – I would try to explain to them that there is a formula to create the best tasting result. They would fight me on it. I’d put in the extra strawberries and they would return it and say that it was too tart). During the day, I was a counselor at a day camp, working with ten 9-year-old boys. It was a great summer, but it was hard work. We forget about how good hard work is. It keeps us engaged, it keeps us motivated and – sometimes – the lesson is bigger. I love hard work, because when it’s the stuff I’m interested in, it pushes me to be better. I love hard work, because when it’s the stuff I’m not at all interested in, it pushes me because I never want to do that kind of stuff ever again.

I can still smell that mascara. I’m not going back there. I’ll just keep on working hard.

What was your first job?

BTW, this post was 100% motivated by Ashton Kutcher‘s awesome speech at the Teen Choice Awards 2013. Watch this… and show it to your kids:


How To Become A Thought Leader

You are one if someone reputable says you are one.

That is the short and simple answer to what is a very complex thing to define. If Anderson Cooper describes you as a “marketing thought leader” prior to interviewing you on air, you can run with that title. Personally, I would have never defined myself as “the rock star of digital marketing,” but when Marketing Magazine called me that, I ran with it as well. Harder than defining what, exactly, a thought leader is would be an attempt to explain how to become one. Mashable recently had a very interesting piece on the topic (which you can read here: How To Become A Thought Leader). It got me thinking about how often we toss that phrase around, how few individuals actually are thought leaders and how easy it is to simply self-anoint oneself as a thought leader.

Who really is a thought leader?

Pushing beyond semantics, a thought leader is someone who is sharing (in text, images, audio and video) their own unique perspective. That would be the “thought” component of the equation. A thought leader is someone whose unique perspective is seen and accredited by both peers or other industry experts as truly being visionary (saying and doing the things that others have yet to do). Leadership isn’t just about being first. Leadership is about how the thinking is ingested and used by the audience. It’s one thing to be shooting a whole bunch of darts at the board in the hopes that something hits the bull’s-eye, and it’s quite another to be someone who has successfully hit the target – time and time again – over the years, and have that coupled with the actual growth of the industry that the thoughts have served. Thought leadership is sharing the vision, having the vision being accepted by the industry at large and having that vision become a part of the DNA and how that industry moves forward. People like professor Henry Mintzberg and Don Tapscott are true thought leaders. Their work has changed how we see ourselves and and how we work.

On becoming a thought leader.

Over a decade ago, I read the book, Become A Recognized Authority In Your Field – In 60 Days Or Less by Robert Bly. The main crux of the book is this: publish, do media appearances, speak and more. The more you do these very public acts of publishing and presenting, the more social proof your personal brand will accumulate. The book dives much deeper into developing a core level of expertise in a very niche topic and beyond. It’s a great read, and it’s easy to see why others might confuse a recognized authority (or, for that matter, someone with a lot of followers on Twitter or a popular blogger) with a thought leader. Being recognized as an authority on a specific subject is still a hop, skip and a jump away from being a thought leader.

Malcolm Gladwell was right.   

In Outliers, Gladwell defines success or expertise as someone who has put in their 10,000 hours. A thoughts leader’s perfect formula might look something like: Gladwell’s 10,000 hours + being a truly recognized authority + peer acceptance of thinking + work that has changed the industry it serves x multiple instances = thought leadership. Thought leadership shouldn’t be a term we toss around like “guru,” “expert,” or “ninja.” The litmus test could be as simple as asking this question: who is really a thought leader in my industry? Before rattling off a list of names, give pause. Is their experience and work (the hands in the game) equal to the published words (a lot of fans and followers)? Are they truly doing and saying things that others have not said before? Do they have the depth of experience that allowed them to do this on multiple occasions?

Thought leaders are an endangered species (or, at least, they should be).

It doesn’t mean that they’re all going to be gone, it just means that the flock is (and probably should be) very lean. We should care, nurture and watch the thought leaders very carefully, because as we toss that term around we may, in fact, be stripping away those who have this tough-to-be-claimed title in lieu of pumping up our own online egos and bolstering our resumes. My guess is that the real thought leaders don’t use that title to define themselves (and you probably won’t find it in any of their bios). They’re probably too busy doing the hard work instead of figuring out how to best position themselves with a title like “thought leader,” because that usually makes the lot of us cringe.

Interested in being a thought leader? Get to work :)


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