Be a quitter

JULY 09, 2013

Originally published on The Dorm Room Fund Blog on July 9th, 3013.

On October 2nd 2012, I realized that I was becoming an expert in the wrong field. Though it was hard to wrap my head around it at the time, there was only one thing left to do: quit.

I decided to leave the sport of rowing to wholly pursue a study of computer science. This one decision led to the most transformative year of my life. However, it was also one of the most difficult decisions I've ever made. By walking away from rowing, I was letting down my coach, my team, and everyone who made me a better rower over the past five years. Even worse, I was no longer an up-and-comer in a given field. As a rower, I had a real shot at becoming great. It was a well-defined challenge that only required my life's dedication. Unfortunately, it turned out that rowing was the wrong discipline for me. Though it's always painful, quitting is often a stepping stone to mastery.

As an expert-in-training, I pursued rowing with abandon and began to lose sight of whether my path was the right one. As I got closer to accomplishing my goals, it became harder to objectively value my success, simply because there is such a societal premium on success itself. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in any discipline to become an expert. When I finally decided to quit rowing, I was 2,000 of 10,000 hours into becoming a rowing master. I had spent too much time of my life - nearly twenty-four hours every week for two years straight - to simply walk away. But then, one day I did.

The more time I spent programming, the more it became apparent that each moment I spent rowing was simply putting-off my next 10,000 hours - not bringing me any closer to finishing my old ones. Yet it was still hard to take a step back from becoming a better rower and decide if I even wanted to be a rower at all. Trying to get a handle on my priorities, I pictured myself accomplishing all that is possible in the sport of rowing. I saw myself becoming the world's fastest at rowing a boat from Point A to Point B. And that's when it hit me. Winning the Olympics wouldn't make me happy.

It has been nine months since I've left rowing behind and it's been an incredible year. I've spent my newly-found time learning how computers work, from the electron to the Internet, Assembly to Java, and Python to Coffeescript. Rowing used to take 23 hours of my time each week. Now, I spend between 30 to 40 hours each week becoming a better programmer and computer scientist. It's a shame that I had to begin my quest for 10,000 hours all over again - and I might not make it there this time either - but I wouldn't spend my time any other way.

If you want to become an expert one day, think hard about where you invest your time. Have you found your field or are you still looking? And if you think you've found it, what is keeping you from dropping everything and diving all in? There are only so many hours in a lifetime that can add up to 10,000. So, be a quitter. The world is begging for your excellence.