How To Be Great – At Anything


I could make this a very short post and just say "practice," but I'm not sure everyone would believe that. In essence though, that is the message of an article from Fortune magazine called Secrets of Greatness. One quick point before we discuss it – greatness and success are two different things. Success requires some luck and timing, no matter how good you are. (Tiger Woods still loses tournaments.) Greatness is a measure of skill at a particular task.

The article above makes some interesting points.

The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without work. It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, you'll be great from day one, but it doesn't happen. There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

That isn't something that we want to hear, is it? Going back to my idea that concentration is the new competitive advantage, I wonder what the next generation will be good at in a world of hyperconnectivity and attention deficit disorder. If greatness comes from focus and discipline, they may not be great at anything. Or perhaps they will only be great at text messaging and finding funny videos online.

Those of you that read this blog regularly may be thinking at this point about my negative take on multitasking. You are probably saying "hey Rob, doesn't this research indicate that people can become great multitaskers?" The answer is yes and no. I think you can become a better multitasker with practice, and research like this would tend to back that up. But, you will never be as good at a task as someone who is focusing on that one thing.

Here is the problem. Our brains seek novelty and change in the environment. Thousands of years ago that was a good thing. Today, it is a double edged sword. When emails, IMs, and phone calls are coming it all the time, it's hard to focus on one thing. The natural reaction of your brain is to pay attention to all these new messages coming in. Compare it to physical work, say, digging a ditch. Let's say it takes you an hour to dig the whole thing. Now consider the situation where you are trying to dig and an insect of some sort jumps towards you head. You swat it away right? Natural reaction. How much longer would it take you to dig the ditch with a bunch of random things swarming around you or jumping at you? It would take a lot longer because you keep pausing to deal with the interruptions, right? Mental work is the same way. Consider this:

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.

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.

A natural question that arise from this is how it applies to business. Can you be great at work?

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? Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering 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 – can you practice those things too? You can, though not in the way you would practice a Chopin etude.

Instead, it's all about how you do what you're already doing – you create the practice in your work, which requires a few critical changes. The first is going at any task with a new goal: Instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it.

The key is to get the right feedback, and to be deliberate in how you approach work, how you make decisions, etc., so that you can learn from each experience. The bad news is that a bad boss might not give you any feedback, or worse, might give you bad feedback.

How to Keep Your Employees Happy Without Giving Them a Raise

So how do you develop the discipline to practice? I don't have an answer to that. Honestly, I'm somewhat ashamed to say this, but spite is a big motivator for me. For instance, I don't play the lottery because everyone else does. I don't want to be well off someday and have people say "well you know he only has that money because he won the lottery." When people talk about how much they hate running, or how boring it is, that just makes me want to run all the more because I am determined not to ever have their attitude. It's weird I know, and I should probably see a psychologist for it but, truth be told, it's a disorder that seems highly beneficial at the moment. So if you have spite, I say channel it into good work habits.

  • Thanks. I will try to be great :)

  • Achilles

    Tony Robbins has been teaching and preaching this stuff for a long time. Although he had done no formal research on this subject of greatness, he had interviewed and talked to a lot of people. I found his audiobooks particularly useful. He had talked about this “deliberate practice” for a long time in form of “CANI”, a committment to continuous and neverending improvement.
    We, humans, are only limited by our belief. The “4 minute mile story” has been quoted many times.

  • I also have that “spite” you talk about. I am kind of hated in college sometimes for it. While everybody tries to get classes off, I chase teachers to at least a little chat on the topic.

    Of course that sets you apart, but it gets frustrating sometimes, since you get labeled as “nerd” thus making you incompatible with the rest of the crowd.

    But again, with a little smarts, you can also overcome one, and raise your popularity ;)

  • As stated, it seems a bit unfalsifiable to me–suppose you practice 10,000 hours on the violin, and at the end, you’re still a mediocre violin player. Oh, you didn’t practice “deliberately”. Is there an objective way to measure whether you’re practicing “deliberately”?

  • Rob

    What kind of economy will we have when everyone’s goal is to build and flip a web company? If that is where genY is heading, we are in serious trouble. I think the build and flip thing is a fad. Economic history will judge this fad as a senseless one that contributed very little real value for the world. I mean really, does Digg add any value to anything? I don’t think so. It plays on the same novelty seeking brain circuits that other vices do. Web 2.0 is the new cigarette industry, using popularity instead of nicotine to keep people addicted.

  • I think that greatness is something that you are determined to do. It’s will power and ego. I mean look at the truly great ones like Alexander the Great, Napoleon, etc. To be truly great, you almost need obsession.

  • It’s like the saying goes concerning how “the harder you work the luckier you get.”

    While it may be true with the violin example that an occasional hard-working person doesn’t reach the level of others, still, the overall truth is that the harder one works, the better chance you have of being one of the best.