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The secret behind greatness

Practice at something for long enough to become good at it

With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be. Instead, we rejoice in the present fact as though it came of the ground by magic. No one can see in the work of the artist how it has become. That is its advantage, for wherever one can see the act of becoming one grows somewhat cool” – Nietzsche, 1986, p. 80

Anyone who has ever watched a great athlete, artist or musician perform, would know why we become awestruck with our heroes. They make complicated movements and actions seem effortless. When they are moving or doing the thing they love, they are in flow and it is beautiful to watch – this is one of the reasons that talent reality shows like America’s Got Talent, or The X Factor or Idols are so popular. However, there is a downside to these television shows. The problem is that they overemphasise talent at the expense of other factors that lead to success and they perpetuate the myth that excellence or greatness is mystical. However, as discussed in a previous blog post on grit, success depends on more than just talent or capability.

William James declared that there is a huge gap between human potential and its actualisation. He asserted that: “The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum” (James, 1907). Unfortunately, having talent doesn’t necessarily make you gritty. We often see very talented individuals who don’t follow through on their commitments and who, despite their potential, end up not accomplishing much. Angela Duckworth’s research on grit confirmed this. In fact, she found grit to be either unrelated or inversely related to talent. So, she questions why society is so fixated on talent and why we obsess over the extreme limits of what we might do; when in fact most of us are still at the beginning of our journeys, and thus very far from the outer bounds of our potential. For most people, excellence seems ever-elusive and they tend to accept that only a select few are capable of excelling.

However, what if I were to tell you that everyone is capable of excellence? The secret behind greatness is not mysterious at all. It is both simple and hard at the same time. According to Duckworth, if we were to focus on effort instead of talent alone, we might actually try at something for long enough to build talent or capacity for it.

Achieving greatness is therefore simple in the sense that greatness is not hidden in innate talent alone but is often the result of trying at something for long and hard enough to get really good at it. Yet at the same time, that is what makes achieving greatness hard, because greatness doesn’t come without effort. It requires commitment, determination, will and perseverance. It requires consistency.

In a fascinating study on competitive swimmers, Dan Chambliss, the sociologist who did the research, explains that “superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills and activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and are then fitted into a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and they all together, produce excellence” (Chambliss, 1989). Ironically, Chambliss titled his article “The mundanity of excellence”, highlighting that counter to what we might believe about high achievers, their day-to-day lives are actually quite mundane. For an Olympic swimmer to appear like a “fish in the water” at the Olympics, requires hours and hours of consistent training. It requires getting up at 04:00 AM or 05:00 AM in the morning and training for five to eight hours a day, sticking to a strict diet and getting to bed early so that he/she can wake up again at the crack of dawn and start the process all over again.

Duckworth, in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, illustrates two other inspiring examples. The celebrated potter Warren MacKenzie, has at the age of 92, been at his craft for nearly his entire adult life. When he was young, he tried different art forms, including drawing, painting and pottery. But it soon became clear that he could derive more satisfaction from doing one thing better and better than being an amateur at many different things. So, he dropped drawing and painting and focused all his energy on pottery. In an interview with Duckworth, MacKenzie admitted to still throwing some clay on the wheel every day. “I think back to some of the pots we made when we first started our pottery. They were pretty awful pots. We thought at the time they were good. They were the best we could make, but our thinking was so elemental that the pots had that quality also, and so they don’t have a richness about them which I look for in my work today”, MacKenzie recounts.

After a request for advice as to how he honed his skill, his answer was: “The first 10 000 pots are difficult and then it gets a little bit easier”. And that right there, is the reason why many of us don’t reach excellence, or end up just living “within our limits”, as William James would say. Many of us simply don’t have the grit – that is, the passion and perseverance – to keep trying at the things we love until we have mastered them. And then to keep going beyond mastery, because we realise that actually excellence is a never-ending journey – a passion for stretching beyond your own limits for as long and as far as possible.

You may have heard the “ten thousand hours rule” mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell was referring to research conducted by Anders Erricsson. Erricsson has spent his life studying how experts acquire their world-class skills. So as Duckworth puts it, “Erricsson is the expert on world experts”. Erricsson found that most experts accumulate approximately 10 000 hours of practice over a period of ten years, before achieving elite levels of expertise.[1] Thus, when we talk about practice in honing or refining a skill, we are talking about long-term commitment on a large scale. However, the most crucial insight gained from Erricsson’s research is not how many hours of practice experts log, but rather how they practice differently from those who don’t reach exceptional levels of expertise. Erriccsson insists that practice should be deliberate.

But how do you ensure that your practice is deliberate and will lead to mastery? According to Ericsson, deliberate practice involves “stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities”. While repeating a skill you’ve already mastered might be satisfying, it’s not enough to help you get better. Moreover, simply wanting to improve isn’t enough. People need clearly defined goals and support from a teacher, coach or mentor. On how to ensure that your practice is deliberate, Duckworth offers her insights from her research on grit paragons and those who have reached supreme levels of excellence in their careers. There are four basic requirements to deliberate practice.

Firstly, you must have a clearly defined stretch goal. According to Sitkin, Miller and See stretch goals are defined by two distinguishing characteristics: (1) They are extremely difficult. Stretch goals espouse radical accomplishments that go beyond current capabilities and performance and (2) They are novel. In other words, to accomplish this kind of goal you cannot just work harder, you also have to work smarter, by finding new ways of doing things.

Secondly, you must practice with full concentration and effort which means incorporating your practice into your daily routine as best as possible. Applying full concentration means being mindful when you are working at improving a specific skill. It means being present to what you are experiencing and focusing on how you feel when you are immersed in the task. It also means that you must eliminate distractions as far as possible. The most effective way of doing this that we have found, is by applying the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length – but you could also opt for 30 minutes or 45 minutes. It is recommended that you don’t stretch the time intervals too long, because you have to work in regular breaks to ensure you maintain your energy levels and concentration.

Thirdly, you must seek immediate informative or constructive feedback and change the way you experience your practice. Total immersion in your practice and regular feedback is essential for learning and improving. It’s important that you don’t become defensive when you seek feedback and receive negative feedback. Mistakes are wonderful opportunities for learning and growth. Basically, you should adopt the mindset of a toddler. Toddlers learn through trial and error and they are never embarrassed when they make a mistake. They spend a lot of time on things they can’t do, until they figure out how to do them.

Lastly, you must reflect on the feedback you have received and refine your practice. This requires reflective and reflexive thinking which is the ability to stand back from the situation and be honest with yourself about what you have mastered and what you are still trying to figure out. It requires asking yourself after every focused practiced session: (1) What went well and what worked? (2) What did not go so well and didn’t work? (3) How can I do better next time? What is the one thing I can change for a better result?

The other example Duckworth shares in her book, is of novelist John Irving, the author of the fictional novel The World According to Garp and the screenplay Cider House Rules which won an Academy Award. Irving is a great storyteller and has been heralded as “the great storyteller of American literature today”. So, can I ask you, what is your first assumption about Irving’s writing talents? He must be a genius of the English language, right? So, would it surprise you to learn that Irving earned a C- in high school English and that his SAT verbal score was a mere 475 out of 800, and that he also needed to stay in high school an extra year to earn enough credits to graduate. Most of his school life, his teachers treated him like he was “lazy” and “stupid”.

Irving only discovered much later in his life that he had Dyslexia when his son was diagnosed with Dyslexia. So, how did he overcome this and become one of the greatest American novelists of our time? He kept a list of words he misspelled and practiced at getting the spelling right. If it took other students one hour to read an assignment, he knew he would need two to three hours. After his tenth novel, he observed: “Rewriting is what I do best as a writer. I spend more time revising a novel or screenplay than I take to write the first draft”.

Irving has chosen writing as his calling, but he recognises that he must keep at it every day. Even though he has won awards, he still doesn’t ever reach a level of complacency. Duckworth argues that one of the key elements of grit, is the drive to continuously improve; it’s being satisfied with being unsatisfied. This seems to be true for Irving and for other grit paragons that Duckworth interviewed for her research.

Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often. We want to believe that great athletes, artists and musicians were simply born that way. We prefer to perceive excellence as fully formed so that it remains a mystery instead of having to acknowledge to ourselves how much effort has gone into developing mastery. Or as Duckworth (2016, p. 39) puts it: “We prefer mystery to mundanity”. Why? Because it removes accountability. We can stay stuck in mediocre lives and simply tell ourselves that we weren’t meant to be great. But if you were to put the question to your authentic self, I would bet the answer would be different. We all have a note we are meant to sing. Our jobs here on earth is not simply to find that note, but to also practice singing it every day until it encapsulates all of our being and inspires those around us, to also discover and cultivate their authentic gifts and figure out how to be their best selves.

References:

  1. Breytenbach, C. (2018). Why grit is essential for transforming your life and career and how you can develop it. LEAP Insights. Available online at: https://leapjourney.org/2018/05/15/why-grit-is-essential-for-transforming-your-life-and-career/
  2. Carter, B. 2014. Can 10,000 hours of practice make you an expert? BBC News, March. Available online at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26384712
  3. Chambliss, D. F. (1989). The mundanity of excellence: An ethnographic report on stratification and Olympic swimmers. Sociological Theory, 7, p. 70-86.
  4. Cirillo, F. (2013). The Pomodoro Technique: The acclaimed time-management system that has changed the way we work. USA: Crown Publishing.
  5. Duckworth, A. L. (2013). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. TED Talks Education. Available online at: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance#t-352475
  6. Duckworth, A. L. (2015). Interview with Warren MacKenzie, potter on June 16th, 2015.
  7. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T. & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100 (3), p. 363-406.
  8. Erricsson, K. A. & Ward, P. (2007). Capturing the naturally occurring superior performance of experts in the laboratory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, p. 346-350.
  9. Erricsson, K. A. & Pool, R. (2016). Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  10. Hardy, B. P. (2018). This 6-word sentence will give you complete freedom and high performance. Thrive Global, May 2018. Available online at: https://medium.com/thrive-global/expect-everything-attach-to-nothing-42e6e0698181
  11. Irving, J. (2002). Rewriting is what I do best. Author Q & A, Random House Online Catalogue.
  12. Irving, J. (1998). The world according to Garp. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group.
  13. Kegan, R. (1983). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. USA: Harvard University Press.
  14. Lauer, A. (2014). Living with pottery: Warren MacKenzie at 90. Walker Art Centre Blog, February 16th, 2014. Available online at: https://walkerart.org/magazine/living-with-pottery-warren-mackenzie-at-90
  15. Lebowitz, S. (2018). A top psychologist says there’s only one way to become the best in your field — but not everyone agrees. Business Insider, February 2018. Available online at: http://www.businessinsider.com/anders-ericsson-how-to-become-an-expert-at-anything-2016-6
  16. Matthiessen, P. (1997). Quoted in “Life & Times: John Irving”. New York Times, Available online at: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/15/lifetimes/irving.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
  17. Nietzsche, F. (1986). Human, all too human: A book for free spirits (translated by R. J. Hollingdale). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  18. Skillicorn, N. (2016). The 10 000-hour rule was wrong, according to the people who wrote the original study. Inc. Available online at: https://www.inc.com/nick-skillicorn/the-10000-hour-rule-was-wrong-according-to-the-people-who-wrote-the-original-stu.html
  19. Sitkin, S. B., Miller, C. C. & See, K. E. (2017). The Stretch Goal Paradox. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2017.
  20. Wikipedia. (2018). The Pomodoro Technique. Available online at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

[1] Note: This is average hours of practice. It may be more for some and less for others. See Skillicorn’s review of the 10 000 hour rule here.

Originally published at leapjourney.org

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