The Bucket Theory:

Lines, Holes, Distance and Darkness

have a theory to run by you (… hold on, I see your cursor navigating towards archive button… stay with me for a short bit. I promise it will be worth it).

This week I finally finished Robert Greene’s, Mastery. In this work, Greene builds a narrative on top of K. Ander Ericcson’s 10,000 hour rule (later popularized by Malcolm Gladwell). The general idea behind the theory is that developing high level of skill in any area requires an especially high number of hours. For example, Ericcson finds that great violinists had often worked close to 10,000 hours before achieving a kind of mastery, good violinists a level of 7,800 and closer to 4,600 for the lower performers. Putting that in context — 10,000 hours is working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 5 straight years. In Mastery, Green takes this concept and applies it to a number of historical and modern masters to extract a set of principles for developing this kind of skill.

So fast forward to yesterday morning. Given that a friend and former student Charlie had also just finished the book, we set aside a bit of time to discuss the book’s message on the phone. Charlie is a few years into his career. Naturally quite talented, he wrestles with the skill areas he wants to develop and how he might move in this direction. Because 10,000 hours is a great deal of time, there is a great deal of importance in choosing the right place to allocate one’s effort. Put a lot of effort into a bucket where even 10,000 hours won’t help you, and the effort might be considered a waste of time. Or, develop mastery is a competency that isn’t needed or transferable to other areas, and that will also feel unhelpful.

So how does the bucket theory fit in?

For a minute, let’s forget about the question of talent development, and let’s apply a framework to people and relationships Imagine you have in front of you a single bucket. That bucket is a relationship. The bucket theory has four parts: lines, holes, distance and darkness.

Lines. On any given bucket there are two lines. The first line typically hovers near the bottom and is labeled competent. The second line is closer to the top. This line is labeled mastery. Your task is to pour water into the bucket, where water is time and effort. At any given point, the level of water in the bucket is the quality of the relationship… generally understood as below competence (just a general lack of mutual connection), between competence and mastery (close but not fully connected at an ultimate deep level) and mastery and above (really deep connection). For lines, the question is about the relative location of ‘competency’ and ‘mastery.’

Holes. The second part of the theory is about “Holes”… holes are about the leakiness of the bucket itself. Holes obviously slow down the ascent of your water-mark when filling the bucket, and will also serve to drain the bucket when you don’t consistently put effort in. From a drip perspective, the key question is the location and size of holes.

Yesterday on a run, my friend Matt and I started fleshing out the theory by describing some people we both knew. One of our mutual friends we described as having a high competency line, only a slightly higher mastery line, and a low set of holes. In other words, it’s really hard to connect to this person at the start as they take some time to open up, but once you get to that point you are very close to being in their inner circle. With this friend however, the low holes however means they have high expectations on consistent investment, and failing to do so can really drain the quality of that relationship over time. In contrast, I have some good friends Jon and Meryl that live in Portland (we will see how good of friends they are by assessing if they read this far in the newsletter). The thing I love about Jon and Meryl is I could not see them for a year and it doesn’t feel like our friendship bucket drained at all. A classic case of high holes.

Distance. The final two pieces of the theory are distance and darkness. Distance means the difficulty of pouring into any given bucket… the further the distance, the harder the challenge. Obviously this can be a literal distance, but it might also be challenges of coordinating with a certain person given differences phase of life. For example, my brother lives in Baltimore and my sister in Minneapolis, but I consider the ‘distance’ quite small in this relationship because we have natural touch points built into our lives that make ‘pouring’ into that bucket easier (again…. test of who is a better sibling based on who responds to this email quicker). In contrast, I have people who I live close to in town that I think of as higher distance, in part because stage of life means that I would have to really reprioritize some things to invest in that relationship, and vice versa.


The last piece of the puzzle is darkness. In the case of high darkness, you can’t easily see the location of the lines or the holes on the bucket. Consider the first day you meet someone. At the point of introduction, it can be hard to tell the height of their competency line (i.e. whether you will connect quickly), almost impossible to tell the location of their mastery line (sometimes assumed to be correlated with the lower line, but often not the case) and a shot in the dark to know the location and size of the holes in their bucket. In contrast, when you really know someone well, darkness is low in that you know exactly the location of their lines and holes. As a result, you have a very good sense on how to invest in the relationship and the potential of doing so.

Taken together, any relationship can be described as a bucket of lines, holes, distance and darkness.

The Bucket Theory & Career Development. Ok, so how does this go back to someone like Charlie (or any of us) in regards to career development?

Let’s imagine a new situation. Instead of having one single bucket that represents a relationship, you are now in a room with a set of buckets, each representinh a different competency. One might be a design bucket. Another might be public speaking. Another could be the ability to manage a complicated social situation. At the very least, every bucket has a competency line, but not all buckets have mastery lines. For example, I BARELY have a competency line on my basketball bucket, and mastery is nowhere to be found. Some buckets are so riddled with holes that even deliberate practice doesn’t help move you towards the mastery line. Specific to this point, psychologists Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick and Frederick Oswald recently ran a follow-up study to Ericcson’s work that finds that deliberate practice might not make up as much of the performance as the 10,000 hour rule suggests. Their meta-analysis found the following percentage of performance explained by practice is lower than expected, and also varied by activity:

Specific to distance, some buckets are closer and others are far across the room, making certain ones easier to pour into without much effort. Finally, the room varies in visibility depending on the stage of your career and level of self-knowledge. Early on in your career, it is relatively dark in the room, so you can’t easily see the holes or the lines on the buckets. And while you will get more light over time (insight through aging), the peak time of light is when you have the least amount of water left. This leads to the whole… ‘if I knew what I knew now, I would do things differently’ old-age ruminations. In complete darkness, the only thing you can do to understand leakiness is to pay attention to the water pooling on the floor and make your best guess at which bucket is the problem.

So, in a world of buckets, what is your filling strategy?

Let’s take someone early in their career and some potential strategies:

  1. You might fill up one bucket at a time… selecting initially by low distance and then paying attention to leaks and hoping to see movement up towards the two lines over time. This is a little bit of a “Gallup” strengths finding approach… “Use our test to determine your strengths, and then invest invest invest!”
  2. You could do a scattershot, filling a bunch and then working hard to discern which ones are filling up quicker. As my friend Bill once suggested, this is like walking into a book store and not heading immediately but a certain section, but wandering around and preparing for serendipity. All the while, you hope for light to see if any of these buckets have mastery lines, and if so, how high up you need to move to get there.
  3. You might also focus on minimizing the distance to the things you care about. 10,000 hours is a lot of work, and the things right in front of you might not pull out enough intrinsic motivation to allow you to stay with the filling process. This is Greene’s advice by the way….start with passion, then start investing.

What about a bucket strategy if you are slightly later in your career? Maybe 30… or 35… or 40 years old?

  1. You could retrospectively see which buckets you have been filling already… and then discern if there is some kind of mastery thread hidden in this history. Again, it might not just be one bucket (the master coder who has seen nothing but the screen for the last 10 years) but instead the ability to fluidly move across multiple buckets, making connections in away your peers can’t.
  2. At this point, you might feel that investing in buckets at a distance seems like more of a bear. You are more set in your patterns, so moving to fill another bucket is difficult. While you might have more clarity, you also feel greater inertia in whatever you have done thus far (some of these barriers are real, and some are imagined). Perhaps the lesson for this person is to realize some agency in their ability to move towards things they care about, or to cultivate abilities they think are necessary in the future.
  3. Maybe you are asking if this is too late to add new buckets. While this might be the case if you really want to get to mastery level… I will never be a master violinist… maybe not if you can see benefits of scaling to competency. News came out this past week that GoPro’s CEO is the highest paid executive in the US. To run this company towards the growth it has experience, does he need to be the best technologist in his firm? Of course not… but he might need to get to a level of competency in other areas to either A). coordinate better with people who are masters in this space, or B). pull from this new area skills helpful for his own central focus. Regarding the last point, Steve Jobs once said everyone should learn how to code. By this he did not mean that everyone should be professional coders, but that learning how to code teaches you how to think. In this way, investing in new buckets can be worth it not only if you achieve mastery but also for the learning that might bleed into other areas.

What do you think? How do you fill your relationship or competency buckets in a dark room? Where are the lines, holes, distance and darkness of your buckets?