Ten Year Careers

My favorite people are irrationally passionate. They’re the ones who get to work getting things done and forego the temptation to stick to talk. These people don’t spectate, they participate. Whether they’re writers on fire about writing, dancers stoked about dancing, chefs who can’t stop cooking, teachers teaching even when they aren’t teaching, whatevers whatevering so strong you stop talking about the weather—these are my people.

Getting good at something—strike that—getting great at something looks a lot more fun in the theaters than it is in practice. Naval Ravikant, CEO of AngelList, said, “It takes ten years to build a career in anything.”*. Thankfully, universities and public education systems and parents teach this, and there is rich discussion and so many helpful examples of how a ten-year career develops.

Except they don’t, and no there aren’t. But what if?

Having only one ten-year career under my belt, I’m no expert, but that shouldn’t keep someone from trying. As far as I can see, here’s how it works.

In years one through three of a career in a given field, plus or minus a few months on either side, everyone is navigating what Chris Dixon calls “The Idea Maze.” Dixon’s framing is specific to entrepreneurs, but I think the metaphor works generally. Before you can be successful in a space, be it acting, dancing, entrepreneuring, or whatevering, you have to know what’s been done before—what’s worked, what hasn’t, what’s been tried, what hasn’t?

In years three through seven, you’ve gotten to know the territory. You know the people’s names who are people whose names need to be known, and you’re trying things that have never been done. The thing about this phase is that things that haven’t been done have a habit of being things that don’t work. We love calling these things failures or, if you’re a millennial like me, “learning experiences.”

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene writes of the greatest dangers to achieving mastery in our careers: “feelings of boredom, impatience, fear, and confusion.” A lot of people quit a career here.

The last third of a ten year career is where things get fun. You don’t just have context, you have experience. Your subconscious is trained and you get more comfortable with your intuition. You’ve fostered relationships for years, and they starting to pay off in ways you could never have expected. Progress plainly demands patience.

But ten years is the minimum investment required for a career. After ten years, you can keep going, or even switch tracks. Take Bob Metcalfe, for example, the man who invented Ethernet—he’s on his fifth ten-year career.