Putting In the Time: Why 1,000 is the Magic Number

Exploring the parallels of mastering piano and startup board meetings

In our work and in our personal lives, I don’t believe a person can master anything until they’ve done it 1,000 times.

Using piano as an example, the first few times playing a new piece of music are stressful! I read through the sheet music, figure out how the notes from on the page map to the black and white keys of the piano, and then clumsily start playing a few bars. It’s a lot to keep track of, so beautiful music rarely emerges at the start and my family endures hours and hours of terrible-sounding cacophony.

By my 100th time through the piece, I have memorized the trickier parts and can anticipate when they are coming up. I’m streaming together the notes with few incorrect key strikes but still at a labored pace. After the 500th time through a piece, most of the notes are in my head and I am able to flow through it with relative ease. I begin to notice little patterns in the music and recurring themes.

But it isn’t until the 1,000th time that the magic happens.

By the time I’ve played through a piece of music 1,000 times, I truly understand the purpose of the piece. My mind has elevated from thinking of individual notes to expressing themes and feelings. Playing becomes an entirely enjoyable experience as the hours and hours of repetition have taken me to a place where I feel the dynamics of the music flow through my hands. There’s no questioning what note comes next; now after so much practice, playing the piece becomes a way to share the feelings and intent of its original composer with my audience. It is a fundamentally more impactful experience to listen to a piece that someone has played 1,000 times.

From the Piano Bench to the Boardroom

The “magic” of 1,000 is as relevant at work as it is at home.

I’ve been a VC for 10 years now, and at this point, it’s safe to say I’ve attended 1,000 board meetings. It took me a long time to learn the ins and outs, and the journey has many parallels to learning to master a piece on the piano! But from the first board meeting I attended back in 2011 to the most recent one I was in yesterday, I can see that my mindset and impact have grown and developed.

First board meeting:

Back in May 2011, David Cowan (my mentor at my old firm Bessemer) dropped into my office and told me to grab my things because I was to tag along with him for his next board meeting.

A million questions were running through my mind: what to expect, what to say, where to sit, etc.

Upon sitting down in that startup’s conference room, I was a bundle of nerves as I tried to get a feel for the dynamics. Having never attended a board meeting before, I was fixated on the data on the slides, interpreting the acronyms, and remembering everyone’s names. Riding back to the office with David, I nervously ask “Did I speak enough or too much during the meeting?” His response: “Well… if you have smart things to say, say them, if you don’t, don’t.” I continue replaying my first board meeting in my mind.

100th board meeting:

About 18 months and 100 board meetings later, I felt like this wasn’t my first rodeo and I was confident in conducting myself properly during a board meeting. I had taken on my first Board Director role (as opposed to a Board Observer role) and had started to see certain issues recur across startups.

I had built up some knowledge of how to handle certain board situations and could invoke those patterns when necessary.

I was comfortable enough with board materials that I could begin to elevate from the numbers on the page to the broader business strategy and contribute to the most critical topics for the gathering.

1,000th board meeting:

At this point, I’ve seen pretty much everything as a board member: a seed startup growing from 3 teammates to being worth over $2 billion (Auth0), startups failing to find product/market fit, and even unfortunate situations like money being embezzled and sexual harassment. This broad experience base enables me to rapidly understand and diagnose a situation and then move to a prescription and path forward.

I can pattern match against the 50+ startup boards I’ve been part of to warn of upcoming issues before they surface and recommend best practices for a variety of situations.

The “magic” of 1,000 is two-fold: mastering something so (1) you can deeply enjoy it and (2) others can benefit from your mastery. So while there’s a long road ahead whether you’re just starting out or even hundreds of hours deep into working on your passion, have confidence that the result is worth it.

Are you a founder turning a real world physical problem into a software problem? Using smart hardware or machine learning? Let’s talk! Leave a comment or get in touch with Ubiquity Ventures.

Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in software beyond the screen, primarily smart hardware and machine intelligence applications.