One Hour at a Time

[The following is my address to the academic chapel of Crandall University this past September.]

“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” In his famous poem “The Parliament of Fowls,” Geoffrey Chaucer quotes the ancient Greek sage Hippocrates to tell us something not only about literature, but about life. Life is indeed short when one considers how long it takes to learn how to—

How to what?

How to do anything truly important and worthwhile. To compose a poem, yes, which is what Chaucer initially means. But also to do anything else in life that is of lasting significance.

To build a bridge that will stand strong and look beautiful for generations. To run a business—a business that provides useful and dignified work as it contributes something beneficial to the world. To form and maintain a marriage—a relationship of mutual care and perpetual stability within which children can grow up secure, confident, and wholesome.

Ryan Holiday in a recent book (Perennial Seller) provides some examples of what it takes to produce something special:

• The Sistine Chapel took four years to paint. Four years. The planning and the building took even longer.

To be sure, that was back in the Renaissance. We move much faster nowadays, right?

• The great American novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 alternative endings to his classic work, A Farewell to Arms, and he rewrote the first part of that book more than 50 times.

• Matthew Weiner, the creator of the TV series Mad Men, had to work on his idea for seven years until production began on the pilot episode. And then he had to wait another whole year before he could film the second one.

• James Cameron wrote the treatment for Avatar, which would become the highest grossing film ever (surpassing another movie by James Cameron, Titanic), in 1994. He couldn’t produce it, though, until film technology caught up to his ideas. In fact, he had to help invent some of that technology. And when it was finally ready, it took four years to actually make the movie, which was released in 2009. That’s right: fifteen years later.

I remember a great speaker once being asked over the dinner table after he delivered a masterful oration, “How long did it take you to prepare that, sir?”

He smiled and said, “About five hours—and thirty years.”

And getting really good at doing something may not take Malcolm Gladwell’s proposed 10,000 hours. But it takes some thousands of hours to become a truly capable accountant, or chemist, or pastor, or friend.

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