Does having = being = doing? Or, how to build a skill set

March 14, 2017

Most of us are familiar with the 10,000 hour concept made famous by Malcolm Gladwell: "in an incredible number of fields ... you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good." He later clarified that you also need to have natural ability in order to get there.


The corollary, I think, is that if you’ve done something for that long

  1. Chances are, you had aptitude for it in the first place;

  2. You probably got a job in it, which allowed you to spend even more time at it

  3. There’s a good chance you enjoyed it early on, or you wouldn’t have done it in the first place


And during those 10,000 hours, that thing you do becomes a part of you. We see this idea most exemplified in English surnames like Baker and Miller, where people who carried on family trades became identified with the roles they spent their life performing.


We all have things we spend 10,000 hours at, and tend to wear them as our identity. “I’m a parent.” “I’m a pianist;” a gardener; a cyclist; a student.


Me, I’m a writer. Even though I haven’t made much money directly as a “writer,” I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to it, and a part of me would die if I had to give it up.


I’ve also done a lot of cancer. (Talk about not making money at something!) Does that make me sound whiny? It sounds whiny to me. But when you look at it according to Gladwell’s math, I, like so many others, have become a cancer expert. That’s just the actual number of hours spent dealing with the disease and its complications, not including talking, thinking, reading and writing about it.


And here’s the thing. Once your cancer is gone, you aren’t a survivor. Get in a car crash and live, and you’re a survivor, because statistically, your chances of getting into another crash probably aren’t any greater than anyone else’s. You start again from zero.


With most cancers, you know it could come back again at any time. Maybe they've tracked recurrence rates or maybe you've already had the same type two or more times or maybe at some point, a health professional admitted—or you figured out—that no one really knows for sure about these things.


You go home and start again, but you don’t start again from zero. You start again from “Am I feeling that same symptom again” and “Your MRI may show a recurrence—let’s check again in three months” and “median recurrence rate is 3-5 years.” Depending on the severity or number of recurrences, or perhaps your resilience, those 10,000 hours can keep racking up. In my case, you can even be declared cured and then magically Voila! the tumor is pulled out from behind your ear like a magic coin.


So here it is. I, like too many others, am good at cancer. The trick will be learning how to somehow redeem that skill. Going back to the book I quoted in my last entry, “Reading and Writing Cancer,” Susan Gubar says that’s why so many cancer patients turn to writing—to make sense of a bewildering situation. My personal goal is to live into the reality every day and see how to use a crappy set of circumstances for the best. Not gloss over them and call them a blessing, but acknowledge this is life and life is the real blessing.


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