How does one become a world class performer in any field? Can we improve our chances of success despite being born to adverse conditions?
With an eye-catching title and an alluring subtitle – “What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” – Fortune editor-at-large Geoff Colvin’s book “Talent is Overrated” provides excellent food for thought in today’s knowledge economy.
Debunking age-old notions that nature matter a lot more than nurture, the book proposes that prodigious amounts of deliberate practice is the key to success in multiple fields.
Citing examples from the worlds of music, sport and business like Mozart, Tiger Woods, and Jack Welch, Colvin’s central thesis is that top performers are not born but made. While genetics may play a small role in determining super-stardom, empirical evidence suggests that those who do extremely well are usually not blessed with positive genes.
The Power of Deliberate Practice
So what’s the secret of world class performance and success?
While Malcolm Gladwell’s idea in “Outliers: The Story of Success” of putting in 10,000 hours of hard work may still hold water, Colvin suggests that deliberate practice may be more important than just working hard. This would cover the following steps in any endeavour:
- Do activities that are designed specifically to improve performance. Get a teacher, mentor or coach to help you improve;
- Do activities that can be repeated frequently, often to the point of ad nauseum and beyond;
- Receive feedback on your results so that you can sharpen your skills and hone your craft;
- Practice in areas that may be highly mentally demanding. They may be intellectually challenging (eg chess), involve strategic thinknig (business), or be physical like sports;
- Activities that aren’t much fun would require deliberate practice.
In the book, highly accomplished performers in any field tend to perceive more, know more, and remember more than most average people in their specific areas of specialisation and expertise. They understand the significance of indicators that lesser mortals fail to notice, look further ahead, and make finer discriminations. Using mental models developed over time, they can also organise information in an exceptional manner.
Three models of deliberate practice
To embrace the principles of deliberate and well-structured practice, there are three models to choose from:
1) Music model.
Here, the practice comprises going through a fixed “script” and finding ways and means to deliver well on that specific area of performance.
In the business world, it can include speeches and presentations where one rehearses a specific pitch until perfection, often with the help of coaches or videos of oneself performing. One can also adopt the habits of best practices in this field.
2) Chess model.
In a manner reminiscent of war strategy (think Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”), the chess model entailed studying positions from real games between top-level players and choosing the best moves.
Such an approach has been well-documented in the business world, and it can be used to focus on specific skills that need improvement. Here, case studies and “gaming” (scenario planning) would be useful.
3) Sports model.
The final model has two key concepts.
The first involve the conditioning and building of strengths in specific areas most useful for a sport (eg hand-eye coordination for baseball), while the other is to work on specific critical skills (eg kicking a football).
In the business world, such conditioning can be applied to improving on fundamental skills (eg financial analysis) through the practice and honing of one’s cognitive abilities.
Deliberate practice in organisations
On an organisational level, the principles of deliberate practice can be applied through the following approaches:
- Understanding how each person should be stretched and developed;
- Finding ways to develop leaders within their jobs;
- Encouraging staff to be active in their communities;
- Identifying good performers early;
- Inspiring these talents; and
- Investing time, money and energy in people development.
Culture is also key. Here, teamwork should be emphasised and valued over “prima-donna-ship”.
Perhaps the most meaningful and inspirational lesson I learned was that anybody can be a top performer so long as he or she is willing to do what it takes.
If you are willing to apply the principles deliberately and purposefully, you can be better at whatever you are doing.
It is important, however, to have passion for what you do. While extrinsic motivators may play a role, elite performers are often intrinsically motivated.
Parenting with deliberate practice.
As a parent of an eight-year-old, I’m heartened to note that success is a life-long venture that can be groomed. While it is true that certain violin virtuosos started when they were 2 years old, many of the top artistes playing in major symphonies started at a later age.
What’s undeniable, however, is that the top performers almost always put in more hours of hard deliberate practice.
To start our kids off on the right footing, parents must provide the right home environment of focused stimulation, discipline and inculcation without killing their passion. This blend of extrinsic factors could hopefully spark off our children’s intrinsic motivation. Over time, it would help to fuel the journey towards eventual greatness.