Does content marketing mastery mean you’re the best all around?

The best copywriter, the best graphic designer, the best blogger?

And what does it take to be the best?

The off-the-cuff answer is 10,000 hours, popularized by the great Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers. That’s what you need to become a renowned concert violinist, a brilliant mathematician, a chess grandmaster, a Pulitzer-winning novelist.

That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.

You might respond to this one of two ways

You might get depressed and re-consider applying for that barista job at Starbucks. Or you might decide to sit down and start plunking away at those hours to meet your goals.

But there are some serious problems with both of those approaches.

The problem with giving up (besides the biggest problem — that it’s no fun) is that it assumes there’s nothing to be gained between hour 1 and hour 10,000. That you’re nothing until you’ve mastered greatness, and the road is too hard and long, so what’s the point?

The problem with settling in to grind the hours out is that it matters — a lot — what kind of practice you put in for 10,000 hours.

For example, 10,000 hours of playing the scales is easy (if really, really boring), but it won’t get you to Carnegie Hall.

And 10 hours of the right kind of practice will bring you something meaningful and interesting. It builds the foundation for something you can start using to achieve content marketing mastery today, not 10 years from now.

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The right type of work

Cal Newport wrote a post many years ago called The Grandmaster in the Corner Office: What the Study of Chess Experts Teaches Us about Building a Remarkable Life.

It looks at how good chess players become great players, or even grandmasters — the highest title a chess player can attain short of World Champion.

Newport says:

“To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.

“I’m summarizing this research here because I want to make a provocative claim: understanding this ‘right type of work’ is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life….”

According to the research Newport summarized, the right type of work is called Deliberate Practice.

You can read lots more about Deliberate Practice in Geoff Colvin’s bestselling book Talent Is Overrated. But since I know you want to get rolling right this minute, I’ll summarize things here.

Content marketing mastery through Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice has some very specific characteristics. Colvin identified eight of those, and Newport boiled them down to six.

I took that down to five, with some thoughts about how content marketers can apply them to the work we do.

Deliberate practice …

1. Improves performance

You’ll recognize this if you’ve ever read anything about the state called Flow. Your practice needs to be hard enough to get you out of your comfort zone, but not so hard that it’s totally out of your grasp.

If you keep doing what you already know how to do, you don’t get significantly better.

2. Requires repetition

If you’re a beginner blogger, write. A lot. If you’re a graphic designer, work on great design. A lot.

So, make a decision about the realm you want to master, and then focus your time there.

3. Thrives on results-based feedback

In the world of marketing, this means you aren’t writing drafts of emails that never get sent. Instead, you dedicate time to improving your email marketing strategy each week.

Are customers buying or not? It doesn’t matter where you start, plenty of great marketers started with absolutely horrendous results. What matters for content marketing mastery is that you test, tweak, and keep reworking to become better.

4. Takes significant mental effort

If your work isn’t fully engaging your brain, it’s not Deliberate Practice. If you could come up with blog post ideas in your sleep, you’re not going to get any better by writing blog posts.

That might mean probably means you need to step up the quality of your posts, but it might also mean you should add in new forms of persuasive writing you haven’t mastered yet.

5. Works with your content marketing mastery goals

I think it’s awesome that you want to be a greater copywriter than Gary Bencivenga, but you also need to set some writing goals between here and there.

Set goals based on your current numbers. You might have a goal this month for a certain number of email sign ups, or a certain percentage conversion from a landing page you’ve created.

As you meet each goal, celebrate, then set a new one a little further out. Notice how this pulls you right back to #1 again.

And how much Deliberate Practice do you really need?

Newport’s post brought all of this wonderful grandmaster stuff back to the world most of us actually live in.

The truth is, you don’t need to put in 10,000 hours to be able to book yourself solid in your coaching practice. Or to sell 10% more of your digital products this month. Or to book two new, steady freelance writing clients before the end of the year.

To quote an old joke, you don’t need to outrun the bear. You just need to outrun the other guy who’s getting chased by the bear.

Most copywriters put in very little Deliberate Practice

They keep doing the kind of work they’re already good at, and they get along decently.

The copywriters who become masters are the ones who test the results of their copywriting strategies, push to improve, and continue to nudge themselves outside of their comfort zones.

Most graphic designers put in very little Deliberate Practice

They keep building okay websites for okay money.

But, the graphic designers who become masters are the ones who spend the time really learning what makes for effective design.

They continue to study the best available technology, seek out knowledge about what makes users do what we want them to do, and push themselves both technically and aesthetically.

Most content marketers put in very little Deliberate Practice

They keep knocking together acceptable content that’s properly punctuated and has the right keywords in it — but they still make a ton of content marketing mistakes.

The content marketers who become masters are the ones who are obsessed with being useful and interesting, who read copywriting websites for fun … and work to implement what they learn there, who watch their analytics to know what people actually read and share, and who keep pushing toward ever-more challenging goals.

Content marketing mastery is much more fun than being average

Once you start down the path of content marketing mastery, you’ll quickly see that it looks different from what you might be used to …

It’s much more interesting. It’s much more satisfying. After some time on the path (exactly how much time varies from person to person, of course) it starts to get much more financially rewarding too.

It’s more difficult, but in the way that energizes you rather than depleting you.

And it’s a worthwhile way to spend your time. In a world of trivia and time-wasters, those aren’t always so easy to come by.

If Deliberate Practice sounds like your thing, Copyblogger helps good writers get more clients, more revenue, more stability, and more respect.

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