The First Ten-Thousand

There’s something sticky about the number ten-thousand. When you need to pull a large but not-impossibly large number from thin air, ten-thousand fits nicely.

A million dollars? No way. Ten-thousand? Sure.

Creatives seem to gravitate towards the number too.

The first 10,000 pots are difficult, and then it gets a bit easier.
― Warren MacKenzie, celebrated potter

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.
― Henri Cartier-Bresson

We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.
― Walt Stanchfield

Whether you’re making pots or taking photographs, you need to get in your reps. How many? A lot. So many that most won’t make it. But not so many to deter those with sufficient persistence.

I was chatting with a friend last week about the trade-offs between quantity and quality in creative output. He described the empowering benefits of a clearly articulated project–you can dive in and move straight for the finish. The opposite is frustrating. Lots of iterations, false-starts, and discarded work. However, the latter can actually be the most beneficial. When we lack clarity, sometimes the most important thing we can do is just start. And the faster we start, the more reps we get in.

When I think about publishing a new post here, I want to have a truly original topic and bullet-proof structure. I need to have the perfect turns of phrase, sources, and pacing. However a bar that high makes it impossible to get to ten-thousand, or even a couple dozen posts for that matter.

But that doesn’t mean that you put out low-quality work either.

I love a story that James Clear shares in Atomic Habits about a college photography class. One half of the class was graded on the quantity of their output–the more photos you took, the higher your grade. The other half was graded on quality–they only needed to take a single photo, and were graded on the quality of that photo.

Guess who had the best photos in this probably apocryphal story? The quantity group. Why? They were getting closer to their ten-thousand.

A key point to emphasize is a rep isn’t just a mindless completion of a task. In the above example, it isn’t sitting on the couch, repeatedly pressing the shutter on your DSLR. It’s engaging in deliberate practice–practice that pushes you a little, stresses you just a bit, and moves you towards a larger goal. Ten-thousand reps of deliberate practice leads to true mastery.

Over the past week I’ve engaged in a little thought exercise about work outputs. What would my skills look like if I did the following:

  • Wrote out 10,000 product spec documents
  • Created 10,000 designs in Figma
  • Wrote 10,000 complex SQL queries
  • Sent 10,000 persuasive emails (getting close here)
  • Completed 10,000 interviews (both as an interviewer, and a candidate)
  • Built 10,000 Google Slides Decks
  • Drafted 10,000 Strategy docs

There’s obviously a little hyperbole here. But for some of these, they are actually achievable.

Perhaps the takeaway for me is with each thing that I create, that pushes and stretches me, that’s one more rep closer to the goal of ten-thousand. And even if the doc isn’t read, the pot is destroyed, or the photograph is deleted, the practice itself is what is enduring and changes you me the better.