Life is Cumulative

My wife hates when my son and I play catch in the house. She’s always yelling that little kids shouldn’t play with balls indoors. She also thinks my son shouldn’t. (We have a running joke in our household that my wife has three children- our son, our daughter, and me.)

My response is atypical, though. I actually find a way on most days to defend what my wife sees as infantile behavior. I tell her that with each catch and throw, our son is becoming a better athlete. More coordinated. More comfortable. With better hand-eye coordination. What I try to convince her of is that people get better not from the formal practice and training we do. Rather, we get better from the informal events. I tell her that we humans can only have class or practice with our team or group a few times per week. That we can only afford so many hours with the private piano teacher that comes to our home after school. I tell her hat because of work and other obligations, as well as weather; we can only go to the park so often.

I even go so far as to cite sources for my argument. Like a defense attorney, I shamelessly quote books and remind her of vivid examples we witness in our everyday lives. She normally doesn’t buy any of it, but I try anyway. One such reference I continue to pull out of my holster is Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, where he explains in his usual compelling way that it requires roughly 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. Whether it’s basketball or painting, writing and playing music or computer programming; it takes a whole lot of study and training to be really, really good at anything.

And you can only get in those extra hours by risking a broken vase now and again.

Of course I’m being a little facetious, but you get the point.

It’s sort of like a savings account and the simple magic of compound interest. The earlier and the more often you make deposits- even if only in small amounts- the better off you’ll be in the long run. The bigger the account, the more interest you earn and, you guessed it, the more interest you earn, the bigger the account becomes.

Proof of this cumulative effect is all around us. Take metabolism for example. When we embark upon a new training regimen, we often become frustrated because we want to shed the pounds faster. We soon realize that adding resistance training to our cardiovascular activities increases our lean muscle mass. Being leaner then translates to more efficient calorie burning— a higher metabolism. The painful and unfair truth, then, is that leaner bodies, those of people who are in good shape, burn calories more efficiently. What?!? Unfair? Yes. But undeniably true.

You may not wish to become an expert, so the 10,000 hour rule may not be your goal or aspiration. But the truth is: you learn more after 100 hours then you do after 10. You are able to digest more after 500 hours then you are after 50. The reasons are numerous, but I’ll note the three I think are most important.

First, your foundation of knowledge is greater. Knowing a little bit about Microsoft Excel’s macros, for example, allows me to recognize opportunities where their use might be applicable. Without that knowledge as a base, those opportunities would just pass me by. More importantly, when it happens, I may not even notice or realize it.

Secondly, the more you learn, the more confidence you develop, which makes you want to learn more. In many cases, one moves quickly from wanting to learn just the basics to realizing exactly how far she can go and thirsting for more, trying to satisfy what eventually becomes an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and growth.

And lastly, as you move up the ladder of development, you attract more resources. Good athletes get better coaching. Kids who show potential in school garner more attention from teachers. And people who perform well on the job meet other professionals and the word gets around about how good they are.

And all of this comes with time. Hours upon hours of study and training.

But there is good news. A friend of mine, Kevin, once told me a story. I called him one day telling him how hard it was. I don’t even remember what “it” was, what the heck I was complaining about. It may have been that the time required for the studies in my MBA program were getting to me. Or that it was hard trying to start and run my own company. Or that I was tired of working out. Or maybe I was griping about juggling all three of those things, along with a relationship. I’ll never forget what he told me. He said “Bobby, pushing the rock up the hill is hard work. But when you get to the top, it’ll roll like crazy down the other side!” If that doesn’t explain the cumulative effect in life, I don’t know what else will.

Which brings me back to my original point. My son can catch better than most four year olds. He can throw a spiral with a regular-sized football. And because it’s fun to have him do it in front of company, he can even backpedal like a real defensive back. Because I played football in college, bleed silver and blue for my Dallas Cowboys, and literally go into a week or two-long depression once the season ends; people assume I’ve been waking him up at 5 am since he was two years old to go out in the back yard and do drills. But I really haven’t pushed football— or anything else for that matter— on him. Really I haven’t.

But we have played catch in the house at least once a week for the last few years. He and I watch football together all of the time, to the point now that he’ll watch any movie— Rudy, Radio, Remember the Titans— that’s based around a football plotline. And ask his preschool teacher and she’ll tell you- we spend about five minutes most mornings in the school gym playing catch. That might explain why he didn’t know most of the words in his class’s Christmas performance, but that’s another story. The point is that he will continue to get better in football. By the time he is ten, if he continues to show interest, he will have logged over 500 hours of practice— informally. Add to that any practice, games, or camps in which he’ll participate (if and when he decides he wants to play for real) and he’ll likely be closer to 750 or 1,000.

But if you’ve been listening at all to me, you understand that will only begin to tell the story. You and I may earn the same rate on our savings accounts. But if I have twice as much money in mine as you do in yours, I will earn much more. And next month, I’ll earn on an even bigger number. And so on. So it will be with my son. If he sticks with football until he is at least ten, for example, he will earn a lot more interest (learn from every exposure to the sport; whether practice, games, or watching television) on the deposits (those learning opportunities) he makes than other kids who are just picking up the sport. And if I’ve taught you anything in this post, you know this solid foundation of knowledge, increased confidence, and greater access to resources— the cumulative effect— will build upon itself.

So the next time you dismiss that extra five minutes of exercise as irrelevant, think reading one more chapter of that book today will not make a difference, or decide not to look up and understand that Excel formula that your colleague showed you, remember this: every missed deposit today will cost you tomorrow.

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About bbluford
I am an executive finance professional with a love for process and application development (MS Access, Excel, Quickbooks), mostly as it relates to Accounting and Business Functions. I also love to write and share ideas with other people in this world. I'm an admitted Gym Rat who works out excessively. The best summation of me is that I love to teach and to learn.

4 Responses to Life is Cumulative

  1. Doris Tolliver says:

    I love you! you made me laugh out loud in class.

  2. Neil Evangelista says:

    Great post Bobby! Even reading this motivates me to keep remembering that those few minutes investing in time spent with my family or even reading this post will make a difference in the long run!

    • bbluford says:

      Thanks, Neil. I think we all forget at times how important it is to continue to take small incremental steps. Too often we look at things in absolute, black or white, right or wrong terms. We think getting on a full-blown workout regimen is too much. Or that going back to school to get our degree impossible. Often times if we start walking toward that goal, it makes a big difference. Instead of thinking about how far we have to go, we can start with something small. Eating breakfast or going for a walk in the morning. Signing up for one class next semester. It’s those steps that accumulate to make our lives meaningful and fruitful.

  3. Pingback: A friend’s role as storyteller « BobbyBluford.com

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