The Most Important Dance

How to Make the 10,000-Hour Rule Work for Your Family Today

The Last Dance—this spring’s ESPN documentary covering the 1997-1998 Bulls—has been phenomenally successful. In part, it owes its popularity to the dearth of live sporting events available to watch during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s also testament to the continued fascination with success, and specifically with what it takes to succeed at the elite level of professional athletics.

The Last Dance focuses on the career of Michael Jordan—his childhood playing basketball with his brothers in the driveway, his explosion onto the college scene at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and his early draft pick to the then-dismal Chicago Bulls in 1984. What the documentary does perhaps best of all is to tell the story of Jordan’s work ethic, his perseverance, his drive. All of his coaches and teammates tell the same story—he was good because he never stopped working. He never had an “off” game, one wherein he simply wasn’t trying. Every game mattered.

In The Last Dance, it is clear that he saw failure as an opportunity for his team to improve. In the 1997 Nike commercial “Failure,”[1] Jordan tells the camera, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

This is a commonly known truth in athletics, and also any number of other fields: to succeed, first you have to fail. Probably a lot. Many are familiar with the “10,000-hour rule,” first popularized by psychologist Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Gladwell argues that what makes for greatness in people like Bill Gates, bands like the Beatles, and others, isn’t just an innate talent—though that’s certainly part of it. Most of the “outliers” that Gladwell identifies also have an early opportunity to put in massive amounts of time at their specific “gift” or skill set. Gates, Gladwell demonstrates, had early and frequent access to computer technology. The Beatles’ all-night performances in Hamburg, Germany, gave them the practice they needed to become one of the greatest rock bands in history.

But not just any kind of practice will do. As Vince Lombardi famously quipped, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Or as Gladwell says, “Those 10,000 hours must be deliberate practice: focused, intensive, and organized.”[2] “When Michael Jordan practiced basketball,” Gladwell continues, “he did not practice the same way JV high-schoolers practice. He sat down and specifically identified his weaknesses and systematically went about improving them. In the beginning of his career, he was a lousy jump-shooter. By the end of his career, he was one of the best jump-shooters in the game.”

If you want to be good at something, you have to put in the effort. You have to be willing to learn from your mistakes, and study to improve on them. Most accept these truths in other fields—athletics, computing, music, and the list goes on. Might there not be a lesson for families in here somewhere? Certainly, seasoned parents have put in far more than 10,000 hours at their job of raising small children. Most spouses have put in more than 10,000 hours at being married. But there is a difference, one suspects, between absent-minded and preoccupied shuffling from work to home to dinner to bed, or of chauffeuring children from one activity to the next, than there is in the deliberate, high-intensity practice of marriage or parenting of the type required when multiple family members are trying to engage at their work (be that job or education) in one space, at the same time. This is “deliberate practice.”

As a personal example, I believe I’m actually improving at being both a wife and mother during this quarantine. This belief flies in the face of countless memes circulating the Internet right now. Am I not supposed to be bedraggled, worn out, drinking chardonnay from a coffee cup by 11 am? I’m tired, to be sure, but I also have no choice but to engage in the very deliberate practice of my family. I see them all day, every day. If I want to survive this—and not just survive, but thrive—then I need to study my children, my other family members. What makes them tick? What causes them to flare up? Is the way I’m dealing with my preschooler’s tantrums really effective? In previous months, I may have just shoved him into his car seat, crying, because we were late to pick up his big brother from school. No longer. I now have all the time in the world to focus on what works.

Most people know that to be good at something, you have to work very hard, very long, and very deliberately at it. You will fail—a lot. Yet, many also assume that somehow relationships should be different. Marriage should just be easy. Parenthood? Well it’s harder, but surely not on par with NBA basketball. Too often, people give up on their marriages, write off their rebellious children as lost causes, throw their hands in the air at a tantrum-throwing preschooler, or turn their backs on a difficult member of their extended family.

But these are the most important relationships of our lives. They deserve the same undivided attention, the same massive time commitment, the same intentionality and focus that Michael Jordan brought to basketball. Yes, you will fail—a lot. Don’t beat yourself up. Accept it, grow from it, and embrace your God-given family roles.  And then figure out where you need practice.


[1] “Michael Jordan "Failure" Commercial HD 1080p,” YouTube (December 8, 2012), available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA7G7AV-LT8.

[2] Rich Rosier, interview with Malcolm Gladwell, Linkage (February 18, 2011), available at https://www.linkageinc.com/leadership-insights/malcolm-gladwell-talks-about-the-secrets-of-success/.

is the managing editor of the Howard Center's quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.

Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/practicing-family

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