Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Secrets to greatness
In the most of many cases, greatness is tied to having a certain innate special and ungodly given natural ability. Yes, in a certain way it is but for people in this class, they are really in a special ungodly class of their own. Having said that, they too have a certain factor that contributes significantly to their greatness which all normal people can adopt. What I am talking about are patience, hard work and undying interest to learning and discovering.
When you think of people like Warren Buffett, Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Michael Jordan and so on. They have a common characteristic among them. They never stop learning, and they learn from their mistakes to improve on their strokes and way of playing.
Buffett once mentioned that he is "wired up at birth to allocate capital." No doubt, this ability is almost certainly exclusive to him. But he too mentioned "Success in investing doesn't correlate with I.Q....once you have an I.Q of more than 125, those are wasted....Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament..." In this temperament, I reckon it goes two ways; firstly, one must have the continuous interest to seek for improvement; secondly, one must be able to control the urges that got most other investors into trouble.
Buffett, for instance, is famed for his discipline and the hours he spends studying financial statements of potential investment targets. One must understand that talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits sorely. It's also an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well - in Warren and Munger terms "being able to stay within your circle of competency."
In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness. Initially, they learn at almost the same pace as the others, then after some time, the others realize the guy has gone way ahead of them. It is not because of his intellect, it may be because of his perseverence to never stop his interest towards learning. Once you lose the "spark", you lose your interest.
I'm unsure if many people realize certain things. What can actually keeps an interest going? I find this comment very interesting from the current CEO of Boeing who was also a former top executive at both 3M and GE, James McNerney. He quoted in Fortune: "Another is that success and achievement can feed on themselves. It feels good to keep succeeding. It feels great to see the people you work with grow and achieve." When one achieve success, big or small, they feel great and it inspires them to do more to keep the ball rolling and to do it better. That is what he meant by success and achievment feeds on themselves.
Then a question was posted by Fortune to McNerney: "What have you observed about those who grow and those who don't? Can you tell in advance who they'll be?" His answer was "No, you can't always tell in advance. It generally gets down to a very personal level - openness to change, courage to change, hard work, teamwork. What I do is figure out how to unlock that in people, because most people have that inside them. But they [often] get trapped in a bureaucratic environment where they've been beaten about the head and shoulders. That makes their job narrower and narrower, so they're no longer connected to the company's mission - they're a cog in some manager's machine."
Having a certain intelligence is certainly a base to success. But that alone will not cause success. A conclusion from a British research on people who achieve greatness was "nobody is great without work.....There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice."
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. If you think of Winston Churchill who was Britain PM during World War 2, he was a great orator, he too practiced his speeches compulsively. Then the great pianist, Vladimir Horowitz supposedly said, "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."
Many great athletes are legendary for the brutal discipline of their practice routines. 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 what has been said so far, 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.
So far, it seems to implies that achieving greatness is not that tough but why does it seems to be so tough or almost impossible? Think in a critical manner. For most people, work is already hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful that they almost never try or get done. That's the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn't be rare. Which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. Then another characteristic is people are afraid from committing mistakes which is a "pooh-pooh" thing to me. Greatness comes from knowing your mistakes, acknowledging it and finding ways to avoid it. Success in a large part comes from learning from mistakes and also knowing where you do not want to go to.
While it is easy to understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, it is also essential to understand where that behavior comes from. I think that has got to do with emotional factor more than any thing else. Once one can find a way around the emotional and psychological factor that has been grounding the characteristics needed to achieve something good, then chances are results will definitely be much better. Strangely, that idea is not popular. People hate abandoning the notion that they would coast to fame and riches if they found their talent. But that view is tragically constraining, because when they hit life's inevitable bumps in the road, they conclude that they just aren't gifted and give up.
Maybe we can't expect most people to achieve greatness. It's just too demanding. But the striking, liberating fact is that greatness isn't reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.