Jitendra Madhav Ramchandani

August 25, 2010

Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything

(By Tony Schwartz)

I've been playing tennis for nearly five decades. I love the game and I hit the ball well, but I'm far from the player I wish I were.

I've been thinking about this a lot the past couple of weeks, because I've taken the opportunity, for the first time in many years, to play tennis nearly every day. My game has gotten progressively stronger. I've had a number of rapturous moments during which I've played like the player I long to be.

And almost certainly could be, even though I'm 58 years old. Until recently, I never believed that was possible. For most of my adult life, I've accepted the incredibly durable myth that some people are born with special talents and gifts, and that the potential to truly excel in any given pursuit is largely determined by our genetic inheritance.

During the past year, I've read no fewer than five books — and a raft of scientific research — which powerfully challenge that assumption (see below for a list). I've also written one, The Way We're Working Isn't Working, which lays out a guide, grounded in the science of high performance, to systematically building your capacity physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

We've found, in our work with executives at dozens of organizations, that it's possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest. Aristotle had it exactly right 2000 years ago: "We are what we repeatedly do." By relying on highly specific practices, we've seen our clients dramatically improve skills ranging from empathy, to focus, to creativity, to summoning positive emotions, to deeply relaxing.

Like everyone who studies performance, I'm indebted to the extraordinary Anders Ericsson, arguably the world's leading researcher into high performance. For more than two decades, Ericsson has been making the case that it's not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we're willing to work — something he calls "deliberate practice." Numerous researchers now agree that 10,000 hours of such practice as the minimum necessary to achieve expertise in any complex domain.

There is something wonderfully empowering about this. It suggests we have remarkable capacity to influence our own outcomes. But that's also daunting. One of Ericsson's central findings is that practice is not only the most important ingredient in achieving excellence, but also the most difficult and the least intrinsically enjoyable.

If you want to be really good at something, it's going to involve relentlessly pushing past your comfort zone, along with frustration, struggle, setbacks and failures. That's true as long as you want to continue to improve, or even maintain a high level of excellence. The reward is that being really good at something you've earned through your own hard work can be immensely satisfying.

Here, then, are the six keys to achieving excellence we've found are most effective for our clients:
  • Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
  • Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That's when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.
  • Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.
  • Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.
  • Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It's also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.
  • Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you'll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

I have practiced tennis deliberately over the years, but never for the several hours a day required to achieve a truly high level of excellence. What's changed is that I don't berate myself any longer for falling short. I know exactly what it would take to get to that level.

I've got too many other higher priorities to give tennis that attention right now. But I find it incredibly exciting to know that I'm still capable of getting far better at tennis — or at anything else — and so are you.

Google and the Myth of Free Time

(By Chris Trimble — a well-known innovation speaker and consultant, is on the faculty of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.)

In my travels, I'm frequently asked to share my thoughts about Google's stated practice of encouraging individuals to spend 20 percent of their time pursuing innovative projects of their own inspiration.

It's not hard to understand where the question comes from. Many people are told routinely that innovation is everybody's job. And yet, the pressures of day-to-day operations are enormous. Who has time to innovate?

But my answer to their question about the 20 percent policy is always the same: It sounds expensive. Very expensive. For sake of argument, let's say 60 percent of the cost structure in your organization goes to salary and benefits. If you were to allocate 20 percent of each person's time for innovation, it would immediately cut 12 points from your margins. Twelve points! Even if you cut it down by extending the 20 percent policy only to a subset of employees, those are huge numbers.

Could it be worth it? Will the investment pay off in the long run?

Unfortunately, it probably won't. To see why, you have to recognize that innovation is a two-part adventure. First, you have to come up with a great idea. Second, you have to execute it. My co-author Vijay Govindarajan and I refer to that second step as the other side of innovation because it is often underappreciated or even completely overlooked.

The problem with the 20 percent policy is that it's likely to generate a great deal of activity on the idea side of innovation and very little on the execution side — the other side. Think about it. Just how much can one person accomplish with 20 percent of their time? They might be able to complete some very small projects, but if we're talking about anything significant — a new product, a new service, or a brand new businesses — then 20 percent of one person's time is just not much to work with.

Even if a few people come together organically to tackle the same challenge with a "group 20 percent," resources are still slim. Perhaps it's enough to articulate a great idea. Perhaps it's possible to even complete some research that supports the idea's viability. But what of the rest of the journey? The other side of innovation is out of reach.

The hidden risk in the 20 percent policy is that you end up generating a mountain of great ideas on paper that never become anything more than a mountain of great ideas on paper.

It's probably best to view Google's stated policy with at least some mild skepticism. Does Google really live up to its 20 percent ideal? I'm sure the company is delighted that their 20 percent philosophy has become so well known and so readily accepted as reality. It must be terrific for recruiting. But I think it is most likely that 20 percent time is an ideal the company aspires to but finds very difficult to live up to in practice, even with their seemingly boundless resources — a luxury most companies can't even imagine.

Fifteen facts about net neutrality

Online MBA Programs