You get a nickel which doubles itself every day for the next thirty-one days.
In five days, the doubling penny is worth a mere sixteen cents. In ten days, it’s worth five dollars. In twenty days, it’s a little over five thousand dollars. You’ve wasted twenty days, right?
Hold on. At the end of thirty one days, the doubling nickel is worth a whopping $10,737,000!
Darren Hardy highlighted this mind-blowing example it in his book, The Compound Effect. It explains the magic of compound interest. Albert Einstein declared compound interest the eighth wonder of the world.
The compound effect (interest) doesn’t apply only to investment. It applies to every aspect of life. The longer you stick to something, the better you get at it. After 10,000 hours, the compound effect turns ‘better’ into mastery.
But today, people pride themselves on impatience. Staying consistent for 10,000 seconds — less than three hours — is tougher than wrestling a bull. 10,000 hours in this ADHD-world is too much. Way too much.
Is it any surprise that most people don’t become masters in any field? Why do we find ourselves in such an environment?
An Irreversible Epidemic
A huge factor in the lack of mastery is lack of consistency. This, in turn, stems from lack of interest. When we start working on something which interests us, we go out all our guns blazing. Ready for glory, to plant our victory flag. But we lose interest faster than politicians change their statements. Why is our focus more volatile than the stock exchange?
As children, we focused hard. But as we reached adolescence, we became conscious of an inner life. The mind became hard to control. Instead, it preferred to wander like a puppy, sniffing around here and there.
The world has much ‘to do’ today. And we like it that way. It lets the mind wander like a puppy. ‘To do’ items save us the effort of controlling our minds. We prefer a reactive mindset rather than a proactive one, thus ‘protecting’ ourselves from tough decisions.
When we wake up, we reach out for our smartphones first. When a task gets tough, we instinctively look for instant gratification. Our mind wanders to other ‘to do’ things. Social media, instant messages, controversial news, Netflix… anything which lets someone else think for us instead.
Forget years, constant distractions have rendered us incapable of focusing for days.
Mastery demands a shift in perspective. It requires resilience — sticking to a task. It requires you to invest much more time than you currently do. Then, the compound effect kicks in and you evolve exponentially.
It looks simple, but it's often not simple to do — such is the beauty of mastery.
— Sam Yang (@StuffFromSam) June 4, 2017
But with hundreds of choices, how should you decide what you want to focus on? Among the myriad of techniques, Warren Buffett’s 20-Slot Rule stands out.
The 20-Slot Rule
Charlie Munger explained Warren Buffett’s success mantra as follows:
When Warren lectures at business schools, he says, “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches—representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.”
He says, “Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”
Again, this is a concept that seems perfectly obvious to me. And to Warren it seems perfectly obvious. But this is one of the very few business classes in the U.S. where anybody will be saying so. It just isn’t the conventional wisdom.
To me, it’s obvious that the winner has to bet very selectively. It’s been obvious to me since very early in life. I don’t know why it’s not obvious to very many other people.
How can you apply this rule to your life?
The Rule and Mastery
You have limited time, energy and willpower. Optimizing them enables you to make wiser decisions. Hence, you must think deeply before you make a punch in the ticket.
Here’s how you can apply the 20-Slot Rule in your life.
1. Work: Deep work means sticking to a field for at least a year or two before moving on. It means observing and thinking before you take a step, thus making each punch count. Reflect on the outcomes and learn from them. Remind yourself about limited time, energy and willpower.
2. Learning: When you have limited slots to make punches, you persist for longer while learning new skills. Follow the Five-Hour Rule with consistency. Learn, apply, reflect, repeat. The more time you spend learning a particular skill, the more you improve.
[Note: Learning includes application. Theoretical superfluous knowledge doesn’t count.]
3. Investing: You have limited wealth, even if you were born with a silver spoon. Rather than investing in every new ‘tip’, study the field long enough to make an educated guess. Then stick to it. Exit only when there is no hope of creating more wealth. Examine your actions and the results. Apply the lessons to future investments.
4. Relations: You cannot please everyone. Even Nelson Mandela couldn’t. Plus, the more friends you have, the more people complain that you don’t keep in touch. Cultivate relations with positive people, those who encourage you, who help you progress. These relations, albeit less in number, will prove substantially beneficial for your personal growth.
It’s one thing to jump in the river without knowing to swim. It’s another to do it for months without learning. You cannot dart from one task to another if you want to make life meaningful.
Constraints like the 20-Slot Rule make you observe, reflect, and apply lessons instead of taking action which yield no results over and over again. You spend less time staying busy or swinging from one branch to another, and more time being productive.
If you want to achieve mastery, you can’t wait for events to occur like a plant waits for sunlight. You can’t become an expert by ‘wanting’ to, just like you can’t start a family by ‘wanting’ to.
Becoming an expert demands training your mind to think deeply. No matter how hard you try, there’s only so much you can do today. But if you do the same thing tomorrow, and the day after and so on, the compound effect will work its magic. Ordinary tasks, done consistently, lead to extraordinary results.
Your life belongs to you. It always has been. To live it meaningfully means taking uncomfortable (and boring) action. Limit them. As ironic as it sounds, limitations help you evolve. You will not live forever. Nor will your willpower, energy and intellect remain constant.
Make the most of now to make the most of tomorrow.