The magic of doing $10,000 per hour work

The magic of doing $10,000 per hour work

The Internet loves credit card hacking. For the uninitiated, it’s the (dubious) science of maximizing credit card points. It drives neurotic behavior like signing up for a card then quickly cancelling it (to claim a bonus); using different cards for different purchase types; or moving points across airlines to maximize the point value. To be a successful card hacker you need to be judicious about cancelling cards, meticulous about modeling rewards and have boatloads of free time on your hands.

But most credit card hacker are mesmerized by the trees – while totally missing the forest. What is the point of all this hacking? Is it to increase your income? Improve your quality of life? Decrease your spending? Because there’s a much easier way to accomplish many of these objectives: ditching credit cards all together and paying cash.

Credit card hacking is a prime example of doing $10/hour work. It feels productive (free money!). It releases dopamine (A free flight upgrade!) And it makes you feel like you’re outfoxing a competitor (I got away with THIS!). But it fails to move the needle.

What truly moves the needle?

What would move the needle? Cancelling Amazon prime. Conducting a monthly money review with your spouse. Paying cash for all purchases. Automating a 529 plan for an unborn child. These are all examples of $10,000/hour work. Not because you get paid $10,000 an hour to do the work. But because the deliberate investment you make will pay off in spades at a future date.

$10,000 per hour work is the process of identifying your highest leverage activities and committing a small amount of time to them each day. It’s the fast tortoise strategy on steroids.

Now I know what you’re thinking. $1,000 per hour? You’d be in the top 0.00001% if you billed at that level. In fact, a 2016 Yale Law Compensation study revealed that it takes 11 years of tenure as a law partner to bill close to $1,000 per hour.

In reality, it’s a framework to consider a “continuum of impact.” If the numbers feel to big, think of the multipliers instead. If your lowest unit value work is $10/hour, what’s something that’s 10x more impactful? How about 1,000x more impactful? For instance, a CEO could write a memo for one of his large clients ($10/hr); Or they could hire an incredible Head of Sales who could bring in 100 new clients ($10,000/hr).

(As an aside, if you’re early in your career or living in a country with a weak currency wrt to the US dollar, don’t anchor strongly on the absolute hourly rates – focus on the multipliers instead.)

The $10,000/hr work matrix

Here’s a 2×2 matrix (similar to our weekly review 2×2) that looks at the four types of work.

Now if you think of our Law firm partner, $1,000 per hour makes a ton of sense. It’s high skilled work (21 years, per our Yale survey) yet low leverage (as they are trading time for money – a lot of it). So let’s look at each quadrant from our matrix.

$10/hour work

When you complete a task, there’s an undeniable moment of glee. The swoosh sound fires dopamine across your pleasure reactors. But as this represents the lowest quadrant in our matrix, caution is required.

One of the likeliest culprits of $10/hour work is email. And specifically Inbox Zero. Why? Since email has no prioritization (i.e. it’s simply sorted by date) and no barriers to entry (i.e. anybody can send you one) you are effectively waving in everybody else’s priorities and demands on your time.

Surely, many of these emails demand a response. But on your own terms. Not just to hit some arbitrary milestone called Inbox Zero.

$10/hour work is busywork. Full stop. A litmus test for $10/hour work is: could I do this hungover? Nuff said.

$100/hour work

This quadrant is busywork at scale. It’s the domain of productivity gurus, shiny tech tools (like Superhuman, Notion or Hey.com) Zapier automations, Text Expanders and the budding no-code movement.

One example is the Personal CRM (or what I lovingly call a problem in search of a solution). Now there are some valid reasons to build and maintain a Personal CRM, including:

  • Identifying and organizing your contacts
  • Creating a series of reminders to stay connected
  • Maintaining a log your interactions
  • Keeping track of their birthdays and interests

But once again, trees versus forest. I’ve met too many folks who kept track of contact #120’s favorite Mexican food – while not holding regular 1-on-1s with their direct reports. Like credit card hacking, you’re dedicating yourself to the wrong outcome.

Said differently, you’re leveraging the wrong skill.

$1,000/hour work

Welcome back to the land of our Law Firm partner. Now for some real talk: this is a very very good place to be. Because you have a unique skill (law, software engineering, investment research) you’ll be able to collect defensible market rents over multiple cycles. And that’s a great life for most people.

But it lacks leverage.

If the world’s best lawyer takes a year off, they can’t collect their $1,000/hour for an entire year. (If they’ve played their cards right, they’ve saved money and it’s working for them – but even at a high salary, that can take decades.)

In my experience, acquiring unique skills is a sure-fire way to develop an anti-fragile career. And with the Internet’s democratization and abundance of digital resources, the playing field for acquiring these skills is the most level it’s ever been.

$10,000/hour work

I once worked for someone with an epic superpower. They could walk into a meeting – any meeting, be it marketing, ops, investing, HR and IT – and always ask a question that would stump the experts in the room.

While this boss was indeed a polymath, he had only worked in the company’s investing function. But his $10,000 hour skill was knowing just enough about each function and distilling complex issues into simple questions.

$10,000/hour work is the exact opposite of its $10/hour brethren. There’s no swoosh sound when you complete it. Zero dopamine. The results aren’t seen for years, if not decades. So like the proverbial “Important, but Not Urgent” it becomes easy to kick the can down the road. I’ll “snooze” on my question asking skills for a day. A week. A year. A career.

The trickiest part about $10,000/hour work is that the actual nature of the work itself is elusive. It’s akin to the way I once heard pornography described:

“Hard to define but I know it when I see it.”

$10,000/hour work is a peculiar cocktail of your industry, skills, passions, curiosities, relationships and vision. It’s planting important seeds for the future, yet you can’t just fill your day with it or the business wouldn’t move forward. So what are some high-leverage and high-skill activities? Recruiting, training, implementing systems and SOPs, sourcing partnerships, access to funding, building an indefensible brand, political/media influence. But be forewarned, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

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Khe Hy
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Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.