How to Be Great at What You Do

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Scenario: "Dude, I'm going to read the most business books, attend the most seminars, consult with the best mentors, and do all I can this winter -- so I'll become a businessperson that oozes with greatness. I'll make billions. Yay!" Oh-no-he-freakin'-didn't!

How Greatness Doesn't Happen

Greatness takes years of focused practice to become that top millionth at what you do; you can't get that overnight. Instead, the information age has made our minds bent on constantly looking for the next great opportunity. The common mindset among the business world and pop culture: "Give me a couple of months, and I'll become the greatest freakin' badass you'll ever see." For instance, you'll find these common themes:

  • Silicon Valley: founders with 2-month managerial experiences believing they know "intuitively" how to manage an eventual multi-million dollar corporation
  • American Idol: singers with 2-month resumes blasting American Idol judges for not appreciating their "talents"
  • Fashion District: designers with 2-month pedigrees thinking they'll kick the asses of Christian Dior, Betsey Johnson, and Yves Saint-Laurent in about a year
  • Web 2.0: entrepreneurs with 2-month programming expertise declaring they'll learn and write the best application in the world, making billions in no time

One problem with the above: Greatness doesn't take two months, or even a year. It takes years of focused practice to achieve even an ounce of it.

Why Conventional Wisdom about Greatness Sucks

When people hold onto the "I'll-be-the-greatest-badass-overnight" mindset, they trap themselves into a vicious never-ending cycle: constantly jumping from opportunity-to-opportunity trying to impossibly kick ass in something overnight. Think of any person you know trying to "re-invent" themselves. Likely:

  1. It didn't happen.
  2. It took them years to do it.

It's a reason why actors don't immediately become great singers. It's a reason why singers don't become great actors. It's a reason why practically all ridiculously successful entrepreneurs can't build another billion-dollar venture in a different industry. It's also a reason why track stars don't become great football wide receivers: We mean besides, common wisdom says amazingly fast 100-meter sprinters should become great football wide receivers, right? The quicker you beat your defender to a destination, the better you are at exploiting the defender, no? The reason why track stars have sucked as wide receivers in the NFL: They haven't developed the proper fundamentals, the footwork, the football instincts, and the play-making abilities that takes years to master. That concept also explains why soccer stars have failed miserably as field goal kickers in the NFL.

How Greatness Happens

Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Mohandas Gandhi, the Wright Brothers, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Henry Ford, Bruce Lee, Whitney Houston needed more than ten years to develop their talents before the world started noticing. As did Warren Buffett, Nelson Mandela, Katharine Hepburn, Michael Jordan, Abraham Lincoln, Tiger Woods, and Michael Schumacher. As did anybody else who's rocked the mutha flukkin world. According to K. Anders Ericsson, achieving greatness takes years of strenuous and deliberate practice to achieve it. In a 1993 study, he explained what distinguished greatness:

The critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts, around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists.

Ericsson found the same theme with other musicians, chess players, and athletes (and according to Fortune Mag: surgeons, and salespeople). The point: If you want to majorly kick ass at something, start practicing like a fervent badass, knowing that you'll need years before you even see a hint of greatness.

How Do You Become Great at Kicking Ass?

Greatness comes not from "just practicing," but practicing efficiently. For instance, you could shoot basketballs for ten years -- but you won't become the world's best unless you do what Ericsson calls: "deliberate practice." That means that you use every practice opportunity to deliberately improve what you do. Fortune editor Geoffrey Colvin describes that with a sweet analogy in his latest issue:

"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 adjustments, and doing that for hours every day - that's deliberate practice."

The moral:

Greatness comes from years of kicking-ass in practice.


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Posted on October 25

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