Jerry Rice was the greatest receiver in football history. As a child prodigy, Mozart composed music that sounded miraculous to listeners; Chris Rock is the funniest man alive and has few peers when it comes to making people laugh.
What is it that they all share in common?
The most reasonable explanation is a natural talent. What other explanation could there be for these folks being so much better than everyone else?
This response also makes us feel better about our average ability level. We are absolved from putting in the enormous work necessary to be genuinely outstanding if other individuals are "born with it."
The actual explanation is that they all share a passionate dedication to what Geoff Colvin (author of Talent Is Overrated) refers to as "deliberate practice."
Deliberate practice is hard work—the 10,000-hour rule.
All three of those incredibly brilliant artists, it turns out, put in a huge lot of effort to get to where they are now. Consider the following example:
Jerry Rice was known for his brutal off-season training, which made other NFL players beg for mercy.
Mozart's legend of hearing his compositions in their entirety in his mind and then simply copying them was just that: a myth. He composed music in the same manner that ordinary people do, continuously rewriting and rearranging his works until they were exactly what he intended.
Chris Rock would book numerous smaller clubs without prior notice of his performance, trying out material until he knew he had enough to fill a full set before doing any major shows.
Almost everyone who has accomplished excellence in an area worth achieving has put in the effort. However, contrary to popular belief, putting in the 10,000 hours referred to in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers isn't enough to achieve greatness.
5 Steps to Achieving Greatness
In a few crucial ways, deliberate practice differs from "normal" practice. It makes no difference what you want to do; if your practice lacks the following characteristics, your prospects of attaining greatness are small to none.
Let's look at each element of deliberate practice now that we've got the gloomy bit out of the way.
Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher's help.
The first stage in deliberate practice is identifying performance areas that may be improved and work carefully on them.
Golf is a good example since most amateur golfers would give nearly everything to shave a stroke or two off their game, but they have no idea how to do it.
When most people practice golf, they go to the driving range, buy a bucket of balls, and then hit every single one of them without thinking about it.
The better approach to go about it is to figure out which aspect of your game you need to work on first. It's hitting the fairway off the tee for me in golf. I didn't realize this until I started keeping track of how many times I struck the fairway and how many times I didn't.
So, it's a specific aspect of performance that has to be improved. And I've begun the process of learning how to do so.
Deliberate practice is an activity that can be repeated a lot.
This is when the 10,000-hour rule comes into play. It would help if you get your reps in as soon as possible.
Moe Norman was a Canadian golfer who never made it big on the PGA Tour due to his eccentric personality. He was a little odd, to be sure. He was never as concerned with winning tournaments as he was with hitting the ball consistently well.
He hit 800 balls a day, five days a week, from the age of sixteen to thirty-two. He claims to have hit over four million balls in his lifetime. Over time, he improved his accuracy to the point that if he struck ten shots in a row, they would all land inside the size of a beach towel.
Anyone who has picked up and swung a golf club would tell you that it is impossible, but somebody who has hit four million balls can do it over a lifetime.
Allows for continuously available results.
Steve Kerr, who was the Chief Learning Officer of Goldman Sachs at one point, famously said:
It's like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level when you practice without feedback. You may practice technique all you want, but if you can't see the results, two things will happen: you won't improve, and you won't care.
Again, the majority of activities that may be practiced can be done without regard for the outcome. You might simply go to the driving range and hit 100 balls without knowing if you practiced very well or very poorly.
You may easily find out how well you're doing by altering your approach a little and shooting at the yardage markers on the range.
Tiger Woods was known for never shooting a shot on the practice range unless he had a specific goal in mind. He was continually attempting to accomplish something with his shot to see whether he had done it correctly.
Is highly demanding mentally
Most individuals are surprised to learn that the most significant limitation in being outstanding at physical activity or sport is mental.
It's quite easy to go to the golf range and whack 100 balls with no particular objective in mind. However, the first time you try to do conscious practice, you'll feel tired by the experience. The distinction lies in the level of concentration.
If you spend more than five hours a day practicing, your mind will just give up and stop paying attention.
Isn't much fun.
Deliberate practice isn't always pleasurable. Practicing putts from less than five feet over and over again isn't pleasant for professional golfers. Basketball guys shooting free throws? It's not enjoyable. Scale practice for musicians? No, it's not amusing.
It's a double-edged sword here.
On the one hand, it's a bummer that to achieve greatness, you have to devote so much time to something that isn't naturally pleasurable.
On the other side, it's fantastic since it indicates that many others will put in the same amount of quality and quantity of practice as you.
"Grit" is a stronger indication of success than other qualities that people generally attribute to successful people, as Angela Duckworth explained in a TED presentation that has over six million views.
The billion-dollar question
So the true question isn't whether or not you have the potential to excel in your chosen career. Instead, the question is whether you have the will and perseverance to get there.
For most people, it boils down to what other aspects of their lives they are ready to give up to achieve greatness. Sometimes we don't even have to search very hard.
Perhaps you might reduce the amount of time you spend on Facebook or watching television. Maybe you might reduce the amount of pointless office gossip you indulge in.
The idea is that greatness is a decision and a commitment to make.
So, will you decide to be great?