What’s Your 10K?

“Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.” (Simone Weil)

A few years ago, I was in a small village in Scotland and had an opportunity to listen to a local author. One of the notes I took from her talk—delivered in such a delightful brogue—was the comment, “What’s for you won’t go by you.” This saying has its roots in Scotland, but as so often happens, I subsequently encountered it in many places.

I’ve had the phrase pinned to my bulletin board ever since that trip. It comforts me and it also troubles me—as good ideas often do. I like the notion that what’s meant for us will persist until we find it. But it seems both facile and dangerous to assume that what I need to live the life of breadth and depth I desire is hovering patiently somewhere nearby.

It may, indeed, be hovering, but unless I’m paying attention and willing to do the work required to have the life I want, what’s for me will go by me. I think often about Malcolm Gladwell’s juicy book, Outliers, in which he asserts that to become good at something we need to put in at least 10,000 hours developing our skill or craft. Whether it’s playing the saxophone, writing, painting, or playing tennis, we’re not going to be become proficient—we’re not going to develop our full talent—unless we put in the hours.

The idea of spending 10,000 hours ballet dancing, playing golf, or studying macroeconomics holds no appeal, but the idea of spending 10,000 hours focused on kindness, or 10,000 hours writing, describes the life I want to have. I’ve still got a long ways to go with kindness, but I suspect I’m well into my second or even third 10K hours of writing, and hope I’ll have time to double or triple that number before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Of course 10,000 hours of effort offers no guarantee that we will become experts or superstars in our chosen field, but Gladwell’s assertion is that without that investment of time and practice, it’s a pretty safe bet we won’t.

Another way of looking at the cultivation of our talent is to liken it to the growth of giant bamboo. It generally takes three or more years before the bamboo seed sprouts through the surface of the soil. But once it has, it may grow 80 feet in just six weeks. As long as we water it, the bamboo seed will eventually grow. Likewise, as long as we continue to nurture our abilities, proficiency will come.

“What’s for you won’t go by you” implies a passivity I reject. It’s planting the seed without watering the soil. I need to be alert so I can recognize opportunity; I need to be thoroughly prepared and able to handle all the effort and responsibility required. I also need to be able to seize and hold the opportunity, and then subsequently nurture it into full fruition.

So, I share the notion that what’s for you won’t go by you with these caveats:

  • As long as you pay attention
  • As long as you prepare for it by putting in the hours needed
  • As long as you recognize what’s really right for you and not what others say you should want
  • As long as you seize it wholeheartedly and without doubt
  • As long as you nurture and cherish it.

Dul chun é, mo chara! (That’s “Go for it, my friend!” in Gaelic)

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman)