What does it take to be the best?
The best copywriter, the best graphic designer, the best blogger, the best content marketer?
The off-the-cuff answer is 10,000 hours, popularized by the great Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers. That’s what you need to become a renowned concert violinist, a brilliant mathematician, a chess grandmaster, a Pulitzer-winning novelist.
That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.
You may respond to this one of two ways. You might get depressed and re-consider applying for that barista job at Starbuck’s. Or you may decide to sit down and start plunking away at those hours.
But there are some serious problems with both of those approaches.
The problem with giving up (besides the biggest problem — that it’s no fun) is that it assumes there’s nothing to be gained between hour 1 and hour 10,000. That you’re nothing until you’ve mastered greatness, and the road is too hard and long, so what’s the point?
And the problem with settling in to grind the hours out is that it matters — a lot — what kind of practice you put in for 10,000 hours.
10,000 hours of playing the scales is easy (if really, really boring), but it won’t get you to Carnegie Hall.
And even 10 hours of the right kind of practice will bring you something meaningful and interesting, and it builds the foundation for something you can start using today, not 10 years from now.
I may have a new favorite blog
I’ve been fascinated by the archives of Study Hacks, a blog by a 29-year-old computer scientist named Cal Newport.
Cal is interested in mastery and practice and living a remarkable life and how to make the best use of the limited amount of time we have on earth. You know, all that simple stuff.
He wrote a post called The Grandmaster in the Corner Office: What the Study of Chess Experts Teaches Us about Building a Remarkable Life, looking at how good chess players become great players, or even grandmasters — the highest title a chess player can attain short of World Champion.
To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.
I’m summarizing this research here because I want to make a provocative claim: understanding this “right type of work” is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life…
So what’s the right type of work?
According to the research Newport is summarizing, the right type of work is what’s called Deliberate Practice. You can read lots more about Deliberate Practice in Geoff Colvin’s bestselling book Talent is Overrated, but since I know you want to get rolling right this minute, I’ll summarize things here.
Deliberate Practice has some very specific characteristics. Colvin identified eight of those, and Newport boiled them down to six. I took that down to five, with some thoughts about how content marketers can apply them to the work we do.
- Deliberate Practice is designed to improve performance. You’ll recognize this if you’ve ever read anything about the state called Flow. Your practice needs to be hard enough to get you out of your comfort zone, but not so hard that it’s totally out of your grasp. If you keep doing what you already know how to do, you don’t get significantly better.
- Deliberate Practice can be repeated. And repeated. And repeated. If you’re a writer, write. A lot. If you’re a graphic designer, work on great design. A lot. Make a decision about the realm you want to master, and then focus your time there.
- Deliberate Practice constantly refers back to results-based feedback. In the world of marketing, this means you aren’t writing drafts of sales letters that never get posted — you’re out there trying to sell something. Are customers buying or not? It doesn’t matter where you start, plenty of great marketers started with absolutely horrendous results. What matters is that you test, tweak, and keep reworking to become better.
- Deliberate Practice takes significant mental effort. If your work isn’t fully engaging your brain, it’s not Deliberate Practice. If you could write blog posts in your sleep, you’re not going to get any better by writing blog posts. That
might meanprobably means you need to step up the quality of your posts, but it might also mean you should add in new forms of writing you haven’t mastered yet, like landing pages or persuasive email.
- Deliberate Practice is structured around smart goals. I think it’s awesome that you want to be a greater copywriter than Gary Bencivenga, but you also need some goals between here and there. Set goals based on your current numbers. You might have a goal this month for a certain number of retweets, or a certain percentage conversion from a landing page you’ve created. As you meet each goal, celebrate, then set a new one a little further out. Notice how this pulls you right back to #1 again.
And how much Deliberate Practice do I really need?
The thing I loved about Newport’s post is that he brought all of this wonderful grandmaster stuff back to the world most of us actually live in.
The truth is, you don’t need to put in 10,000 hours to be able to book yourself solid in your coaching practice. Or to sell 10% more of your ebook this month. Or to improve conversion by 5% on your e-commerce site. Or to book two new steady clients before the end of the year.
To quote an old joke, you don’t need to outrun the bear. You just need to outrun the other guy who’s getting chased by the bear.
Most copywriters put in very little Deliberate Practice. They keep doing the kind of work they’re already good at, and they get along decently.
The copywriters who become masters are the ones who spend the time to test results, push to improve, and continue to nudge themselves outside of their comfort zone.
Most graphic designers put in very little Deliberate Practice. They keep building ok websites for ok money.
The graphic designers who become masters are the ones who spend the time to really understand what makes for effective design, who continue to study the best available technology, who seek out knowledge about what makes users do what we want them to do, and who push themselves both technically and aesthetically.
Most content marketers put in very little Deliberate Practice. They keep knocking together acceptable content that’s properly punctuated and has the right keywords in it.
The content marketers who become masters are the ones who are obsessed with being useful and interesting, who read copywriting websites for fun … and work to implement what they learn there, who watch their metrics to know what people actually read and share, and who keep pushing toward ever-more challenging goals.
It’s more fun to be a master than to be average
Once you start down the path of mastery, you’ll quickly see that it looks different from what you might be used to.
It’s much more interesting. It’s much more satisfying. After some time on the path (exactly how much time varies from person to person, of course) it starts to get much more financially rewarding.
It’s more difficult, but in the way that energizes you rather than depleting you.
And it’s a worthwhile way to spend your time. In a world of trivia and time-wasters, those aren’t always so easy to come by.
About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Hang out with her (or even better, talk about your own Deliberate Practice) on twitter.