Malcolm Gladwell has become synonymous with the idea that mastery comes through sustained repetition (to the tune of 10,000 hours). This notion builds on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s suggestion that “your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
Of course, you can do something 10,000 times and still suck. Repetition only makes you better if you are fearlessly chasing improvement and committed to learning from your mistakes. After all, there are plenty of examples, from fast food outlets, to crazy taxi drivers, where repeated daily action doesn’t always lead to improved service or performance.
Lately I’ve been pondering a much smaller number; 150. Studies suggest that 150 is the maximum number of people we can sustain in our active social networks (the Dunbar number). Modern websites and tools (address books, contact software), allow us to track more than 150 people, but beyond that the depth of connection becomes very shallow. Moreover, keeping those 150 together as a group may require an unsustainable amount of effort.
This made me wonder about open loops and projects. David Allen, of GTD fame suggests most have around 200 active projects and action items. I’ve found in the last two years the number I can cope with is closer to 150. Above that I have to admit some “active” projects are really paused, or in hiatus.
Then I started thinking, what does it mean to do something 150 times in a year. Take this blog as an example. 2010 has been a lean year for me, in terms of writing, with less than 150 posts making it onto this site. But, in the good years, where traffic and output was higher, 150 posts was more like half a year’s work. 150 times a year, or more than 12 times a month crosses a line that separates frequent from occasional.
Or, consider photography. 150 photos in a year is no achievement, but 150 photos that are worth sharing certainly is. I’m not saying 150 “great” photos, just 150 solid, well framed, well developed, flickr-worthy images.
In a normal year I would expect to see more than 150 films. For various reasons I will end up well short of that this year. 150 feels like a good number if one’s goal is to keep abreast of current films, re-watch a few great films and keep discovering unseen older films as well.
Back in my academic days I was reading over 150 books a year, which was par for the course really. In fact, I went for close to 15 years or so at a rate of 3-4 books a week. But, since my focus has changed I don’t anticipate going back to that anytime soon. However, I do still read close to 150 long essays in a good year.
What about constructive routines, like music (woodshedding) or exercise? 150 sessions won’t transform you into the best technical musician in the world, or make you a top athlete. However, keeping that 3 times a week tempo is enough to put us ahead of the pack and in decent form.
Moreover, I’m convinced that 150 home-cooked, healthy meals a year would be enough to make a dramatic improvement in a lot of people’s health (and waistline), mine included.
OK, I’ll admit that my 150 theory is more than a little random and unscientific. After all, for each of these examples we can think up better, more accurate and more well researched numbers. And, in some cases (music practice and home-cooked meals, 150 should really be a minimum, not a goal). But, that’s not the point. Imagine for a second what life looks like if we add all these 150 oriented goals together.
What would a year be like where I hit the woodshed at least 150 times, created at least 150 shareable photos, cooked at least 150 meals, watched 150 films, commented on 150 long essays and hit the gym (or pool) over 150 times? I think that would be a pretty fantastic year.
And where does all this 150 action sit with the notion of doing something 10,000 times? At a rate of 150 times a year, it takes close to a lifetime to reach 10,000. Some might see that as a fatal flaw in this idea. However, I’m all for any sustainable approach that builds lifelong commitments to our craft and passions.