The Alternative 10,000 We Should All Be Thinking About

Many of us are aware of the 10,000 hours theory, taken from the work of psychologist Anders Ericsson and brought into everyday awareness by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to maximise our talents, or 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. This seemed compelling to me when I first read the book, but there’s a different 10,000 in play that I’m much more interested in. It concerns days, not hours.

If you work a 5-day week (which most of us do), each year is roughly 250 working days…

…and 250 working days a year mean your 40-year career is just 10,000 days.

Ten. Thousand.

Sound like a lot? Maybe, until you consider the days you’ve already worked and the age at which you’re expecting to retire. Those two numbers rack up as well.

Now, I’m aware that many of us will work longer than a 40-year career and some way beyond that. Except here’s the problem — most people I meet don’t really want to. How many of us say, ‘of course, I won’t be doing this job forever’ or, ‘well I wanna be out of this game by the time I’m 50' ?

A while ago, I was with a client in a bar in Central London. We were catching up on news of the moment, the gossip since we’d last met and the latest job moves that characterise life in a large multi-national. We also chatted about his own career development and the fit of his current role with his plans for the future, at which point he said, ‘well, of course Tim, I won’t be doing this forever’.

Me: So what do you want to do?

Client: I want to build boats.

Me: Boats?

Client: Yep, boats. I want to build and restore boats.

He explained in passionate detail how it would all work, the business model he’d been working on for a while and the lifestyle implications for his wife and their growing family. The sparkle in his eyes made it clear to me that this plan was more than just a dream. It represented all he really wanted, and where he was really going.

Me: So when do you want to be building boats then?

Client (like a shot): Oh, by the time I’m 50. I want to give at least 10 years to building boats and then I’ll probably call that a day and head off into retirement.

I began to share my idea of 10,000 working days and his cogs turned immediately. There, on a napkin, we scribbled his headline numbers; the age he’d started working, the days he’d already worked and the number he had left before reaching his 50th birthday and his plan to swap the office for a workshop and begin a whole new adventure for him and his family.

Here was a guy who was loving the job he was in, who was being stretched, fulfilled and held a position of high influence. However, in that bar, he realised he had less than 1500 days left to (a) achieve everything he wanted from this chapter of his career and (b) get everything in place that would be necessary for the 2500 days he wanted to give to building boats.

Just 1500 days.

It’s the kind of conversation that focuses the mind.

10,000 days isn’t a depressing headline to remind us of our mortality — it’s a massive invitation to grab hold of every moment and because our working lives are moving fast. And every day can be something we make the most of.

When we think in years, the future can appear somehow distant, but a day-based focus seems to sharpen everything; a quarterly sales plan is 130 working days, a 2 year transformation project is just 500 and the next 6 weeks you’ve said are all important are just 30 new opportunities to show up, bring your best work and collaborate with others to make something happen.

So today matters. This day matters.

If we all started thinking days-not-years, maybe we’d approach the work we do a little more seriously and yet with a load more humour. Which version of you showed up to work today? And could this day stand as the final one you ever worked?

10,000 working days. It’s less than you think. And before long, this one’ll be over.

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