Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ingredients for greatness

What makes Tiger Woods great? What made Warren Buffett the world's best investor? Each was a natural who came into the world with a gift for doing exactly what he ended up doing. Buffett was known to say, he was "wired at birth to allocate capital." It's a one-in-a-million-thing. You've got it or you don't. But well folks, it is not as simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist. No one is a born CEO, investor or chess grandmaster. You can only achieve greatness through an enormous amount of hard work over many years, at times, both demanding and painful. Buffett, for instance, is famed for his discipline and the hours he spends studying annual reports, reading 5 newspapers a day, and reading lots of books. The good news is that your lack of a natural gift is irrelevant - talent has little to do with greatness. You can make yourself into any number of things that you have a passion for and be great in it.

Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It's an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. How can some people able to go on improving? The truth may lies by what is uncovered by scientists' observations on great performers across a diverse field.


The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without work. It is 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-performance without experience or practice.

Evidence shows that even the most accomplished people need around 10 years of hard work before becoming world-class.

The ten-year rule is a rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average. In many fields, like music, literature, elite performers need 20 or 30 years experience before hitting their zenith.

So greatness is not presented on a platter. It requires a lot of hard work but yet that isn't enough since many people who work hard for decades cannot even sniff greatness. What's missing?


The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call "deliberate practice." It's an activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one level's 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 adjustment, and doing that for hours every day - that's deliberate practice.

Do it regularly - like you would bath every day - not sporadically.

For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. That's the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn't be rare. Which leads to 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. Some people are much more motivated than others but why - something yet to be answer.

David Novak, CEO and Chairman of YUM! Brands, says, "If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. I believe that you are only as good as you think you are, and that only you can hold your back, that positive thinking is self-fulfilling, and that you become what you think you can become. That in a nutshell is what will inspire you to know your stuff, give you real substance, and love what you do, which have always been the keys to success."

So the reality is that we are not hostage to some naturally granted level of talent. We can make ourselves what we will. Strangely, that idea is not well embraced or popular. People hate abandoning the notion that 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 greatness isn't reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and about everyone.

1 comment:


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