November 3, 2018

There are so many ways to become a master in all you do.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell lays out the “10,000 hour rule” which is the principle that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field.

For you math types, he’s calculated that as simply a matter of practicing a specific task that can be accomplished with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years.

I know…that’s 10,400 hours…so consider the extra 400 as a head start in year 11 towards “Grand Master.” Or I guess you can take 2 weeks off a year from mastery if you prefer to be a slacker. 🙂

It should be noted that there are as many folks who think this theory is a golden rule as there are who think it’s not completely valid.

I went down a rabbit hole on Google on that…not recommended.

I won’t get into an argument about the exact number of hours it takes…but I think we can all agree that it’s not 10 hours or 100 hours or even 1,000 hours to true mastery.

To be great at anything takes significant practice, repetition and study.

There are three quotes I use when I speak to copywriters about this and they are all from Gary Halbert.

But I think these quotes could pertain to anyone in marketing–and probably many other fields and professions too.

The first quote I will share is how he connects hard labor to becoming  great (speaking to prospective copywriters)—and I think he also used this quote to get the attention of those who dare think copywriting is a commodity and something you can just “pick up in your sleep” easily:

“I have suggested that you do one hour’s worth of road work every morning right after you get up for six days a week.” 

I marvel at what it takes to be a great copywriter and it’s not easy. Halbert knew that as well an anyone.

That quote also reminds me of a story from one of my mentors, Adolph Auerbacher (business builder of the iconic magazine brands Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies Home Journal in the 1960’s and 70’s).

When his staff at their cushy offices in midtown Manhattan got complacent or lazy he would remind them how “easy” they had it; and then he walked the biggest culprits to a window to watch construction workers at a job site (and there’s usually one outside multiple windows in most skyscrapers in New York City at any particular time).

He would then have no need to explain what “hard work” really was.

And this was especially effective in the middle of the winter when it was 72 degrees inside and minus 12 degrees outside.

Another Halbert quote was specific instruction he gave to every writer who thought they had the stamina to work with him (and to eventually be as good as him):

“Get yourself a collection of good ads and DM pieces and read them aloud and copy them in your own handwriting.” 

Gary isn’t the only copywriting “professor” who gives this out as an assignment to students.

I remember the young writer who heard me quote Gary about this “technique” at a live event where I was speaking–and he also heard me say that the first three chapters of Gene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertisingmight be the most important 47 pages to read to become a world class copywriter—and he combined those two thoughts and invested time, paper and postage to let me know he was listening.

He proceeded to send me via snail mail the first three chapters of Breakthrough Advertising, all 47 pages, handwritten on dozens of pages of legal pad paper, telling me he was starting to put in the time and effort to become a top gun copywriter.

Don’t underestimate how much more you can retain by writing and re-writing rather than typing and re-typing. In fact there is real data on how your thumb and forefinger are connected to your brain differently than a keyboard. I give you permission and I do recommend you go down that rabbit hole on Google.

And one more quote from Halbert on writing and discipline and becoming a master:

“I don’t know exactly what I am going to write about today so what I am going to do is just keep putting words down on paper until I start to get some direction.” 

And there you have it…the 10,000 hours rule according to Gary Halbert…and if you are as talented as Gary, you might just be able to get by after only 5,000 hours of “road work,” handwriting winning promotions and never getting stalled by something  silly like writer’s block.

Now I would like to give you Gene Schwartz’s take on this…and a way to chunk down those 20 hours of work for 10 years into 33.33 minute segments.

Gene was more than just a copywriter which I have talked about a lot in the past–and he is mentioned often in my new book, Overdeliver. (Click on the title in the P.S.…there’s a pre-order page!) 

But writing copy or just getting something done towards mastery in anything needs a system…and Gene had a beauty which is so simple (and I found this summary of his “33 minute/33 second process” online):

•Choose one (bigger) task you want to work on that requires focus and concentration

•Turn off all notifications and anything that could distract you

•Set a timer for 33 minutes and 33 seconds (and I know Gene used an old fashioned egg timer for this task)

•Don’t stop and don’t do anything else till your timer goes off

•When the timer goes off, take a break for 5-10 minutes

•Reset the timer for another 33 minutes and 33 seconds and repeat

I have probably read all the time management books you’ve read…maybe more…and there are variations of this in many of them; but if this one worked for the greatest copywriter of all time, I’m all in.

And here’s why it worked for Gene (and I editorialized a bit below based on what he told me and some observations that I read online in forums from advocates of the technique and from a writer named Rachel Miedema—all of us are big fans of “33.33”):

•The time slots give the impression of a deadline and you will work a little faster (and certainly more concentrated) than you might otherwise.

•Even though we think we can multitask, we really can’t. Focusing on ONE task for 33 minutes helps us therefore to concentrate and thus do better.  If you want to read more why we can’t multitask I recommend reading the work of Ned Hallowell, the world’s top expert in this area. I have mentioned him in the past in previous posts about “Vitamin C(onnect)”and one called “Driven to distraction.” The latter subject line is the title of his most famous book.

•Because you get breaks between two slots, you will be less tempted to check your email or go on social media while you are working (Tip: for maximum effect, allow yourself to only go “online” after three “work periods”). Gene would like this one despite passing away well before he could leave a digital footprint himself. I think he would write killer subject lines too! We are just lucky he left us as much as he did in print, video and audio.

•It also works well with tasks that seem daunting, because you only “commit” yourself for 33 minutes. It’s less of a hurdle to start on something you’ve been postponing that way.

•It’s a great idea to get up from your chair after the 33 minutes and do something else, something physical. Another idea is to do small chores on the breaks.

•Research supports that working in time blocks with pauses in between is far more effective than trying to stay concentrated for hours in a row.

While the 33 minutes limit is fairly arbitrary, who are we to question Gene?

I know I made a huge jump here from mastery of your craft to preventing writer’s block, going from the macro to the micro.

However, you can never go wrong following the words and actions of Halbert and Schwartz.

Here’s a better summary:

Master your craft 33 minutes, 33 seconds at a time, 20 hours a week for 10 years.

And then re-set the timer.






P.S.  I couldn’t help but mention above that there is now a pre-order page on Amazon for my new book, Overdeliver: Build a Business for a Lifetime Playing the Long Game in Direct Response Marketing. 

I’m not sure if Amazon will like me better if you place an order now—I bet they will!—and of course you won’t get billed until they ship.

The release date looks like April 9, 2019.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me with the title and the cover…even those who didn’t vote for the winner in either case. You folks are so smart and I am so grateful for the input and advice.

I’ll continue to share material from the book as we get closer to the launch date…and if you think you’ve had enough of me by April 9th, you can cancel your order…although then you’ll miss out on the best and most complete reading list ever for marketers and copywriters…which I will not reveal before publication! 🙂

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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