By Frank J. Rich
Some years ago I was introduced to a thinking model that presumed something very unusual. It was that the world we generally perceive is not at all the one that delivers the happiness we seek. Some of you might shrug at the notion with a knowing twist of the head. “Of course,” you might say; “this world is no paradise.” The proposition, according to this model, was to see the world for the opportunity in it, and to celebrate what’s right about it.
A common expression of the model was to say: “If you spot it, you got it,” when asked about the special way in which its followers viewed things. The parallel to business (of this model) was striking, at least in my mind. Our striving after greatness, I wondered, may be no more than a point of view. Or, alternatively, was it simply born in some and not in others? So, which is it?
Are we but the unsuspecting product of natural selection, or a work of purpose in our lives? There is no denying that some are so naturally inclined to achievement that it’s easy to just assume “they’ve got it and others don’t.” Others, no less successful at their attempts, seem to bear fruit by the sheer force of their labors. What does it take, then, to achieve greatness— is it inheritance or inspiration?
Solomon may have been the son of David, a king among kings, but he amassed a wealth greater than any single man in history. His achievements are legend. But how did he accomplish them? Francis Ouimet may have been the greatest golfer to seldom play the game. Was he a natural, or a product of the effort he put into it? Tiger Woods, no less, appeared to be unstoppable as the greatest golfer alive—not a bad result for someone who had been playing the game daily for 29 of his 31 years. Did Kobe Bryant just ooze talent, or were his basketball skills the effluence of hard work and extraordinary discipline? Was Steve Jobs just blessed of good timing to find himself back at the helm of Apple, and doing extremely well, or was the road back marked by obstacles and overcoming?
Research has demonstrated that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret: arduous and demanding practice and hard work. Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway) may have an extraordinary knack for making the right investment moves, but his success in market matters is more likely the result of his legendary discipline and long hours spent studying the financials of investment targets. Contrary to his own view, research suggests that he was not “wired at birth to allocate capital.”
Frankly, we do not possess a natural gift for a particular job. And while it is true that our so-called natural gifts do incline us toward greater performance at some things more than others, job-specific natural gifts do not exist. We are not born publishers, CEOs, or enforcement officers, though some things unique to us do prepare us better for some jobs over others. The conclusion is that we will achieve greatness only by hard work over much time.
Jim Rohn, management and motivational guru, claims that the answer lies not in what we do but in what we don’t do. “The things I found to be easy to do, others found to be easy not to do. I found it easy to set the goals that could change my life. They found it easy not to do it. I found it easy to read the books that could affect my thinking and my ideas. They found that easy not to do. I found it easy to attend the classes and the seminars, and to get around other successful people. They said it probably really wouldn’t matter. If I had to sum it up, I would say what I found to be easy to do, they found to be easy not to do. Years later, I’m a multi-millionaire and they are all still blaming the economy, the government, and company policies, yet they neglected to do the basic, easy things. In fact, the primary reason most people are not doing as well as they could and should, can be summed up in a single word: neglect.”
Experts are remarkably consistent in their findings—talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. The irresistible question—the “fundamental challenge” for researchers in this field, says the most prominent of them, professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University is— “Why”? How are certain people able to go on improving? The answers begin with consistent observations about great performers in many fields.
ex nihilo, nihil fit
Nothing comes from nothing! Nobody is great without work. In other words, there is no substitute for hard work. It is nice to believe that if you find the field that uses your natural gifts, you’ll be great from day one, but it doesn’t happen. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.
Reinforcing this “no-free-lunch” finding is vast evidence confirming that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.
What about Bobby Fischer, who became a chess grandmaster at 16? Turns out the rule holds: he’d had nine years of intensive study. And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years’ experience before hitting their zenith.
Greatness then, isn’t just handed over to anyone; it requires a lot of hard work. Yet, even this isn’t enough, since many people work hard for decades without approaching greatness or even getting significantly better. What’s missing?
The Practice in Potential
The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results, and involves high levels of repetition.
For example: simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day—that’s deliberate practice.
Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, “Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.”
Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It’s the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.
Certainly some important traits are partly inherited, such as physical size and particular measures of intelligence, but those influence what a person doesn’t do more than what he does; a five-footer will never be an NFL lineman, and a seven-footer will never be an Olympic gymnast. Even those restrictions are less severe than you’d expect—Ericsson notes, “Some international chess masters have IQs in the 90s.” The more research that’s done, the more solid the deliberate-practice model becomes.
Just Folks … like you and me
All this research is evidence of what great performers have been showing us for years. Winston Churchill, among the greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. Vladimir Horowitz is credited with saying: “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.” He was certainly driven, but the same can be said for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took six Mr. Olympia medals, Tiger Woods, or Peter Drucker, who learned enough new to write a management book at age 95, the year before he died.
Successful CEOs read an average of four business related books a month. The reading habit of most Americans is to read one book a year. In football, all-time-great receiver Jerry Rice—passed up by 15 teams because they considered him too slow—practiced so hard that other players would get sick trying to keep up.
Tiger Woods is a textbook example of what the research shows. Because his father introduced him to golf at an extremely early age—18 months—and encouraged him to practice intensively, Woods had racked up at least 15 years of practice by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, at age 18. Also in line with the findings, he has never stopped trying to improve, devoting many hours a day to conditioning and practice, even remaking his swing twice because that’s what it took to get even better.
The evidence, scientific as well as anecdotal, seems overwhelmingly in favor of deliberate practice as the source of great performance. Just one problem: How do you practice business? You guessed it. Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, and decoding financial statements—you can practice them all.
Still, they aren’t the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information. These, too, can be practiced. It’s all about how you do what you’re already doing, how you imagine the work, and yourself doing it.
Report writing involves finding information, analyzing it and presenting it–each an improvable skill. Chairing a board meeting requires understanding the company’s strategy in the deepest way, forming a coherent view of market changes and setting the tone for discussion. Anything that anyone does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill.
A Mind That Matters
Armed with the mindset of performance improvement, people go at a job in a new way. According to research, they process information more deeply and retain it longer. They want more information on what they’re doing and seek other perspectives—the very definition of growth. This difference in mental approach is vital—mindset is the key.
Feedback is crucial, and getting it should be no problem in business, or so you’d think. Yet most people don’t seek it; they just wait for it, half hoping it won’t come. Without it, as Goldman Sachs leadership-development chief Steve Kerr says, “it’s as if you’re bowling through a curtain that comes down to knee level. If you don’t know how successful you are, two things happen: one, you don’t get any better, and two, you stop caring.” In some companies, like General Electric, frequent feedback is part of the culture. If you aren’t lucky enough to get it, seek it out.
Be The Ball
It’s common advice from tennis instructors, but just as useful in business. Build “mental models of your business”—pictures of how the pieces fit together and influence one another. The more you work on it, the larger your mental models grow and the better your performance.
Andy Grove could keep a model of a whole world-changing technology industry in his head and adapt Intel as needed. Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, had the same knack. He could see at the dawn of the PC that his goal of a computer on every desk was realistic and would create an unimaginably large market. John D. Rockefeller, too, saw ahead when the world-changing new industry was oil. Napoleon was perhaps the greatest ever. He could not only hold all the elements of a vast battle in his mind but, more important, could also respond quickly when they shifted in unexpected ways.
It’s a lot to hold on to, but not as valuable without one more thing—deliberate practice. Do it, and with regularity. Simply, it’s about being what you hope to become.
The Existential “Why”
For most people, work is hard enough without pushing any more. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. But, that’s the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn’t be great but ordinary, which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. While experts understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, they understand very little about where that behavior comes from.
This is where research loses its way, because observable behavior may not reveal the heart, and it is here that we find the motivation to carry on … often to greatness. My own experience suggests that high performers are believers in the value of the “thing they do.”
I often ask clients if they believe in what they’re doing. “If they stutter when they talk,” I suggest to them, “it might be why they stumble when they walk.” Greatness is no existential catwalk in which the delicate balance of life is at issue. The fact is that we can make ourselves what we will. But that requires that we first abandon the idea that our “hidden talent” will appear at the precise moment when the balance of our lives is perfect, a view that is tragically self-limiting and leads to self-defeat. Rather, the liberating news is that greatness is not reserved for the “gifted” few, but is available to you and me.