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Ten-Thousand Things

I'd originally written this post back in January of 2011 on my older, now defunct, blog. I thought I'd pull it out of storage, dust it off, and slap a fresh coat of paint on it, since it's a really good story with a valuable life lesson ...

“I fear not the man who has practiced ten-thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten-thousand times.” ~ Bruce Lee

There once was a great and powerful emperor who adored cats more than anything in the world. One day, he hired a famous artist, the most skilled master painter in all the land. He commissioned this artist to paint a picture of the perfect cat, instructing him that it should be representative of everything that a cat is.

“It should be playful, mysterious, comforting, protective, cunning, soft, flexible, wise, mischievous, and all the various traits a cat would have,” explained the emperor.

The master painter bowed before his emperor and said that he would be able to paint such a painting, but that it would take time. The emperor was so enthusiastic about his painting that he allowed the artist to take as much time as he needed to complete the task.

A week went by and the emperor grew anxious. He went to see the artist and asked if his painting was finished yet. The master artist said it was not ready yet, but that the emperor should come back soon and it would be finished. A month passed and the emperor returned again to check on the artist’s progress.

“Still not ready,” said the master paint, “Come back in another month.”

In this way, month after month had passed until months became years and years turned into ten whole years and more before the emperor finally returned one day, now becoming rather irritated.

“Yes,” said the master painter, "At last, it is ready.”

"Where is it?" the emperor demanded impatiently, "Let me see it!"

The master artist then dutifully picked up his brush, dipped the tip into some rich black ink, and made several quick strokes on a fresh piece of rice paper, creating the perfect image of a cat. The emperor's eyes went wide in awe. He was so stunned, so elated by the quality of the image before him, that he immediately forgot his anger and began to shower its creator with high praises and promises of limitless fortune as he began describing how wonderful the piece was.

“It is everything that a cat is,” the emperor declared, “From its whiskers to its ears to its eyes to its tail, it has all the qualities and traits a cat would have. But why, pray tell, did it take you so long, when all you did was paint a few short strokes here and now while I watched?”

The artist then bade the emperor to walk with him to a large wooden closet. The master painter opened the closet door and out poured thousands upon thousands of sheets of paper, each one a practice sheet of imperfect standard and quality.

"You saw the result," the wise master said, "And I mode it look easy, but what you didn't see, and why it took me so much time, were the ten-thousand failures I'd made before finally happening upon the one that I knew would most please you. You commissioned me to do this work, knowing I was the best, and even still, it took me all that time and practice to craft a masterpiece fit for an emperor as you."


This parable was first told to me by one of my mentors in college, who taught us that in order to be great at anything, it takes about ten-thousand bad attempts before one good one finally emerges. This idea was not unique to him. It is ancient wisdom that many others have repeated. Maybe this is your first time hearing it, in which case I'm happy to have taught you something. Hopefully, it will be as valuable and useful to you as it was to me.

Though, like all things, it will probably take many times hearing it before it sinks in.

You might have noticed that the thumbnail for this article doesn't seem to have anything to do with the story I just told you. In that, you would be incorrect, though. To the ancient Taoists, if one knew ten-thousand things, that person was said to be all-knowing:

Wan Shi Tong - Avatar

"I am Wan Shi Tong, he who knows ten-thousand things."

Indeed, I thought about putting the abstract image of a cat in place at the beginning. I spent a long time searching for just the right one, but in the end, decided it would be better to leave that to your own imagination. Taking advantage of strategic ambiguity, since any image I found, no matter how perfect, wouldn't be nearly as good as the "perfect" cat you envisioned in your mind. 38D

Although I copied a large chunk of this post from the previous one, there were some changes made. They are subtle, but I think they greatly enhance the quality of the story overall.

I made it look easy, right?

Well, I should have, given I took it from an older story. I had good stock to work with, which counts for a lot, but what you don't see are the countless hours of writing, and of experience in general, developing my own personal talent stack, that went into making this short little post.

Everything that came before, in some form or another, was just practice for this. A previous failure. Worthless lead transmuted into gold.

As you go about your day, and your life in general, keep this parable in mind. For those who wish to get in better shape, consider what doing ten-thousand sit-ups might do for you. Or for those who wish to develop a new skill, imagine what ten-thousand hours of practice would accomplish. Or what you could learn from reading ten-thousand pages or watching ten-thousand minutes of video on YouTube.

You don’t have to do it all at once, of course. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Spread them out across the days and months and years, pausing to rest and reassess if need be. The path towards perfection never really truly ends, as even the master still has more to learn and must spend ten-thousand hours practicing his craft.

Whether you're looking to be a master artist, a master persuader, a master writer, or just to gain mastery over yourself, it's going to take time, and you will fail a lot, but through perseverance and sheer force of will, you will eventually break through to something wonderful.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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