by Rob Aquilina, English Teacher

On January 2 of 2021, I started a new challenge for myself. (I would have started on the 1st, but I was too sore to do anything but lie down and eat chips) I set out to do the 10,000 kettlebell swing challenge. A kettlebell swing is a specific kind of exercise. Doing one is easy. Doing 10 makes you start to breathe heavy. I’m doing 10,000 by the end of January. This may have been a bad idea. 

The thing about kettlebell swings is they’re boring. Granted, most days I’m drenched in sweat and gasping for air by the end of my workout, but really I’m just standing in my basement moving a big metal ball back and forth. It’s hard, it’s exhausting, and it’s no fun at all. But I like a challenge. And hitting 10,000 of anything is a challenge. 

10,000 is a special number. 

Bruce Lee once famously quipped: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” There is profound truth in what he said; one makes you a pretty good dancer, and the other makes you capable of kicking down a tree. 

Doctors and health specialists recommend the average person take 10,000 steps every day. That was my 2020 challenge. I averaged well over 10,000 steps every day for the whole year, but it was hard. Some days, hitting 10k is literally a walk in the park. Others, it took real commitment to lace up those shoes and get moving. 

Civilization has only been around for about 10,000 years. The number 10,000 appears eight times in the Bible. 

But perhaps the most notable occurrence of 10,000 is something called the 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Throughout the book, Gladwell asserts that expertise in a particular area, skill, or hobby comes from 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. He even uses the Beatles as an example by pointing out that they had played over a thousand shows together before Beatlemania took off and landed in America. 

“Deliberate” is the key term, though, and not the number of hours. While the 10,000 hour rule was popularized by Gladwell, the real founder of that rule was a psychologist named Anders Ericsson. Dr. Ericsson studied world class masters in the fields of music, medicine, athletics, and even chess. His research found that it’s not just the number of hours of practice that matter, but the manner in which people practice. True mastery requires attention and effort over a long period of time. Imagine a violinist playing her instrument for hours a day. She’s not simply attempting to memorize a song; she’s trying out new fingering on the strings or holding her wrist in a new position to see what changes it makes. Ideally, with the help of a teacher, she is experimenting over and over again to find the best possible strategy to create music. 

That same kind of deliberate practice is used to improve at kicking a soccer ball, tying stitches, and even reading and writing. When people think of school, they often think about it in measurements like time or grades. They’re focused on a finish line. But what would happen if people’s attention moved away from the goal and onto performance? Maybe people would focus on doing math just to get better at math. Maybe instead of writing an assigned amount of pages, people could focus on honing their ideas and word choice, then write the best essay they have ever written. 

Sure, it’s more difficult than simply meeting the criteria, but the best things are always difficult. 

I spent 10 minutes with Anders Ericsson once. It was at an educational conference in Philadelphia. I was sitting in the front row and he sat down next to me. I wasn’t star-struck, but it was amazing to chat with someone who’s research had changed the way millions of people think. We mostly talked about our favorite podcasts, then he walked up to the stage and taught the whole audience the secret to a great memory. If I had an extra minute with him, I would have asked him about his research. I would have asked him how all the masters that he has worked with are different from someone like me. If they wanted greatness more. 

I didn’t get the chance to ask, but I assume his answer would be something like this: Every time someone is great at something, they weren’t aiming for great. They were aiming for better. Better than the day before. Every move a purposeful choice. They just found greatness along the way. 

My goal with the 10,000 kettlebell swings challenge isn’t to be great; it’s just about fitness. But every time I work out I am deliberate with my movement. Watch the shoulders, straighten my back, push through the legs…and I keep getting better. People who want to get better at things keep working hard and keep being deliberate: teachers, students, doctors, chefs, gamers, athletes, musicians…the list goes on. 10,000 hours is a lot but, really, it’s just 10,000 chances to improve.

Rob Aquilina is probably sweating right now. At the time of writing, he was just a few days away from completing his January challenge, and he’s looking for new challenges. When he’s not sweating— and sometimes when he is— he teaches English at Next Charter School in Derry, NH. You can reach Rob at raquilina@nextcharterschool.org.

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