The Passion For Greatness

“Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The Secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work.”
— Fortune Magazine

Two years ago, I went down with my son to the Ledbetter Golf Academy for a father-son week. Ledbetter is part of the IMG (sports management giant) sports complex that includes Bolleteri (tennis) as well as residency programs for soccer, baseball, skating, baseball and others. We were part of the tourist track, but we could see the PGA hopefuls playing who live there year long. I asked my instructor how they could tell when they had the next Tiger Woods. She said it was straight forward. After hours and hours of grueling practice, when the buses came back for dinner, the stars would go out on the range and hit another 1-2 hours of balls while the others dragged themselves to the dining hall. This was the case with Ben Hogan and, more recently, with Tiger.

There has been a lot written and speculated about what is the source of greatness. The two groups fall into the innate greatness camp and the passionate focus camp. Study after study has failed to deliver many points for the “innate greatness” side, but a growing body of research supports the grueling, demanding practice position. While innate ability is obviously a key factor in grouping competitors (e.g. a five foot person is not likely going to make it far in basketball), the difference between good and great is "Deliberate practice".

Fortune’s recent cover article was on the Secrets of Greatness. In it, they discuss how most people “learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then stop developing completely…How are certain people able to go on improving?”. They go on to discuss work done in the early 1990’s by Anders Ericsson of Florida State that shows a consistent correlation between star performers and practice. Ericssson, and many studies after, show that “the most accomplished people need around 10 years of hard work before becoming world-class.” Coincidentally there is an adage in the venture business that VC’s don’t truly become productive and competent until after their first decade in the business.

In tennis, there is little that differentiates the #5 and the #100 player in the world beyond drive and determination. In violinists, the top group averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives, the next best averaged 7,500 hours and the next averaged 5,000. On the innate side, Ericsson noted that some international chess masters have IQ’s in the 90’s. Jerry Rice of 49er fame was passed up by 15 teams for being too slow, Jordan failed to make his high school team. The list goes on. I will write later on a corresponding Scientific America article on genius which came to a similar conclusion from a different angle.

How does all of this apply to you and me? The article consolidated its learnings into 5 points on how to become more effective and skilled at what you do:
1) Approach each critical task with an explicit goal of getting much better at it. The example, in golf, is not to just hit golf balls for an hour, but specifically focus on landing 80% of the balls within 20 feet of the pin with your 8 iron. This focused effort is what researchers call “Deliberate Practice”.  Practicing with a specific goal of getting better leads to longer retention and a deeper interpretation.

2) As you do the task, focus on what’s happening and why you’re doing it the way you are. Be aware of what you are doing. When you tune out and execute on auto-pilot, your neural pathways don’t form with the same energy or vigor as when you are focused and present.

3) After the task, get feedback on your performance from multiple sources/angles. Make changes in your behavior as necessary. Most people avoid criticism and don’t seek feedback. Without direction and assessment, you “don’t get any better, and you stop caring.”

4) Continually build mental models of your situation – your industry, your company, your career. Enlarge the model to encompass more factors. Create pictures of “how the elements fit together and influence one another.” Grove, Gates, Rockefeller all had maps of their industries. Napoleon would identify and track the key elements from the battlefield in his mind.

5) Do those steps regularly, not sporadically. Occasional practice does not work. Consistent practice is key or entropy sets in. Hogan used to say that if he missed a day or two of range practice, he would be set back a week.

Great. How does this mumbo jumbo fit into business? If you think about it, everything in your work is a practicable skill. Trouble shooting, managing time, making sales pitches, negotiating deals, etc. Focus getting up every morning with the goal of not just getting through the day or just clearing the to do lists, but rather, to focus on getting better. Approach each task, whether it is writing a report or dealing with crisis, with "deliberate" focus.  Think through how all of your actions & tasks fit into the bigger picture of your work.  What is critical and what can you be doing better? When doing those things, focus on improving. 

This still leaves a variety of questions unanswered. Where do people get the passion to focus on continual improvement when the day-to-day routine can drag you down? How do you define what is important and should be focused on and what is not? A lot of this comes from doing what you love and have a passion for.