Why 10,000 Hours Won’t Be Enough

What do you do when you’ve spent 10,000 hours honing a skill and then your organization changes the entire process? Start by remembering what it was like to be a kid.

By Sage Thompson, Marketing Administrator, the Arbinger Institute | February 14, 2020

How often are we experiencing change in the workplace, and what can we do to prepare for it? Whether you’re asking for change in others or yourself, there is one key shift that is critical to being able to adapt and grow well in the midst of transition.

Recently, I went out to lunch with a few work colleagues. As I sat down to eat, we realized we had chosen a table with disproportionately low chairs. With the table sitting chest-high, near the middle of our ribcages, many of us had to lean in and raise our arms to adequately eat our food. Within minutes of eating in this posture, we remarked that we felt like children again, just tall enough to be able to eat our food.

It soon became clear that an activity as simple as eating lunch – something we each have done thousands of times – was now a struggle as we adjusted to our new situation. It created an almost surreal experience to observe several adults seemingly regress to childhood with spilled food on the floor and elbows held comically high to navigate forks into our mouths.

One of our co-workers jokingly shared a new empathy for his young son. “How many times have I told him to stop sitting up on his knees and just sit flat on the chair? But now I see why he does that! He can’t adequately reach the table unless he’s on his knees!” Aha moments abounded as we experienced what it is like to be a child again.

It Only Takes 4 Inches to Cancel Out 10,000 Hours

For me, the experience highlighted a lesson that drastically helped me overcome a challenge I was facing in my career.

I am 24 years old. Using rough numbers, that means I have eaten food at a table approximately 25,185 times. I have well surpassed my 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in the art of eating. Eating is an activity I can often do with little effort or focus. I also am fairly certain that my coworkers – and many of you reading this – are similarly “eating experts.”

Yet the five of us struggled in this situation. Our eating took more effort, more time, and resulted in more mistakes than any of us were accustomed to.

But… weren’t we experts? Didn’t we already know how to do this? What had happened?

This less-than-expected result happened because of the simple fact that change creates re-learning. Change requires adjustment, and that adjustment period isn’t something that I can “expert” my way out of. It impacts even the most educated or prepared.

Even small change requires re-learning. At first glance, anyone observing us would have likely seen five people sitting at yet another table, eating yet another lunch like any other group. But all it took was 4 inches of additional height to create a situation in which we had to re-learn and stumble through something we were previously skilled at.

Why Change Leads Us to Believe We’re Not Good Enough

How often as leaders do we ask people to do something new, then become frustrated at their resulting struggles? Paralleling that, how often can we become frustrated with ourselves when we struggle to adjust to changes in a routine we have come to excel at?

At the Arbinger Institute, we use the term “inward mindset” to identify the type of beliefs we tend to bring with us into various situations that make it difficult to see others or ourselves clearly. My most prominent experience of having inward mindset is feeling worse than others. It’s easy for me to go into a situation with the belief that I am not as good as – or good enough for – [blank].

I adopted this sense of being worse than others when we recently updated our CRM system and database—my own proverbial disproportionate table and chairs. One of my roles is to take care of our database and CRM system, and while not at the same expert level as my eating skills, I and the people I support had come to depend on my ability to traverse and manage that role proficiently.

I had prepared for this change. I had taken part in trainings, done beta testing, and was aware and—frankly—excited to have a shiny platform to work in. When the update did occur, however, I found myself struggling. Tasks I had previously done in five minutes were taking me fifty minutes, and the amount of mistakes I made were eye-wideningly large and time-consuming to resolve.

My tendency to feel worse than others quickly kicked in as I increasingly became frustrated with the quality and effectiveness of my work, justifying that it was because “I was wrong to believe I could ever be good at this role” or that “I must not be good at adjusting to change.” These beliefs did not help me become better; instead, they fueled and justified my negative beliefs in myself and consequent actions, creating an even more difficult transition than when I had started.

Cue the paradigm shift I experienced as I sat down to lunch with my coworkers. As I watched these incredibly talented, hardworking individuals struggle alongside me to eat their food, I realized that change does not reflect that I or others are incapable or incompetent. Even the most capable or hardworking individuals can be impacted by small changes. It is simply the result of re-learning that occurs from change.

Understanding this helped me let go of the “worse than” beliefs I had been carrying in my role. It wasn’t until I was able to see myself – and others – clearly that I began to make progress in my adjustments. I began asking what I could do to make this transition easier for myself and others, and started focusing on the concept of learning something new instead of trying to re-create an older skill I had built. Within a week I had drastic growth in my proficiency, cutting the time it took me to accomplish my day’s tasks in half.

The idea, though a simple one, is this: in the face of change, offer patience instead of judgment and acknowledge that those undergoing change are learning new skills (not just honing old ones). Allow them that time to learn anew, and focus on what we can do to be helpful—especially if the one facing change, is you.