On Becoming Great

by Stephen Mills on October 31, 2009

Nobel Prize Medal

In the last several years something called deliberate practice has gotten a lot of press.  The 10,000 hour rule and the ten year rule have become part of our lexicon.  Here is a link to a video by Malcolm Gladwell on genius that is related but not exactly the same thing being described in this article.  I’m including it because I thought it was very interesting.  You might have to be a nerd to enjoy it.  🙂

To me this is all a good news / bad news / good news story.  The good news is that with enough deliberate practice, anyone of normal ability may be able to become world-class in their chosen field.  The bad news is that it takes 10,000 hours or more of the right kind of practice.  The good news is that with the right kind of practice you can start improving right away.  You don’t have to wait to become world-class to see the benefits.

My favorite source for all this is a book by Geoff Colvin: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.  It’s a practical book that gives you a method for implementing deliberate practice.  I thoroughly enjoyed and gained insight from this book.

Talent is Overrated

I do agree that talent is overrated.  The evidence is clear on that.  But some people, including Geoff Colvin, go so far as saying it is irrelevant.  I don’t think so.  OK, Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team.  Michael Jordon worked harder than everyone else and was the last person to leave the practice court, even as a pro.  Maybe that is what separated him other basketball players with natural talent, but seriously does anyone believe that if Michael Moore practiced basketball for 10,000 or even 1,000,000 hours he would be another Michael Jordon?  Clearly Michael Jordon was born with some natural athletic ability that most of us don’t have.

It has been pointed out that some chess grandmasters have below average IQ’s.  I find this very difficult to believe, but I will accept it has been confirmed.  Thus talent is overrated in chess players.   However, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the greatest chess player of all time, Gary Kasparov, has a measured IQ of 190.  That puts him in the 99.999999 percentile.  He is not even one in a million, he is one in a hundred million.  Bobby Fischer’s IQ was 185.  Those are cream of the crop geniuses.  Yes, they still had to practice deliberately to develop their skills, but they clearly had natural talents that most of us don’t.  They started way ahead of me.

So What Should You Do?

I think the concepts of deliberate practice can be put to good practical use by everyone and that benefits can be derived without 10,000 hours of practice.   You don’t one day go from average to world-class.  You become better, then good, then exceptional, and maybe then great.  Not surprisingly, if you want to separate yourself from the crowd, you are going to have to work hard.

The Elements of Deliberate Practice

“Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining.  It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such a sports; and it isn’t much fun.”  — Geoff Colvin

It is designed specifically to improve performance

The key point is designed.  Just repeating what you do over and over is not going to cut it.  Deliberate practice is designed to develop.  Deliberate practice stretches you beyond your current abilities.  You are out of your comfort zone and away from you already do so well.  Colvin insists you will probably need a teacher or coach in the early going.

It can be repeated a lot

This doesn’t require a lot of explanation.  You have to practice in your stretch zone (described above) a lot.  If you want to be a great writer, you have to write a lot.  If you want to be a great violin player, you have to practice several hours a day.  This is where the hard and not-so-much fun work comes into the picture.

Feedback on results is continuously available

The bottom line is that you have to see the results of what you are doing or it won’t matter.  Some activities like sports have fairly objective feedback on results.  Other areas like business or the arts might need some interpretation.  This is where a coach or teacher can be invaluable.

It’s highly demanding mentally

Deliberate practice requires intense focus and concentration.  It is mentally exhausting and thus you can’t do it for more than an hour or two without a break.  If you are mindlessly practicing some repetitive motion or mental activity, you are not practicing deliberately.

It’s usually not fun

There is nothing inherently enjoyable in deliberate practice.  This is what prevents most people from engaging in it for very long.  I think there may be some activities that you can do as deliberate practice and still enjoy it.  Writing may be one of those activities, but the mental exertion required to do it right and the repetitive nature of the practice sessions almost guarantee it is not going to be the most enjoyable thing you do in your day.

I hope this article stimulated your interest in the subject.  Like all aspects of human psychology, behavior, and performance I personally find it fascinating.  If you really want to be great at something, the evidence clearly shows you will have to put in your time.  If you are interested you should pursue the many available resources:

The article that started it all:

Geoff Colvin’s article:
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Geoff Colvin’s Book:
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Other Books:
The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.
Outliers: The Story of Success

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 2 trackbacks }

On Becoming Great — The Rat Race Trap – KBlog
November 2, 2009 at 11:35 am
This Is The Bridge – And I Must Cross It
November 3, 2009 at 1:17 pm

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisis | Quest For Balance November 1, 2009 at 6:25 am

Wonderful post… and I love that you shared your sources at the end so we can look into this further. One of the biggest issues that keeps most of us from achieving those 10K hours, is the last one you mentioned… it is NOT fun. And there’s no one around who can make us do things that aren’t fun.

I think one of the ways most people get to be Masters at something (Tiger Woods, Bobby Fisher, Nastia Liukin, Michael Jackson) is that they start young… so young, in fact, that they aren’t really the ones making the decision and making it happen. Their parents enroll them in lessons, and make them practice… A LOT.

I love to hear about Masters who started their skill later in life… who were basically ordinary until, one day, they decided to start on those 10K hours and actually got to their destination. Maybe Michael Jordan is in that category.
.-= Lisis | Quest For Balance´s last blog ..Posting at Porsidan: What Lies Beneath Perfectionism =-.


Stephen Mills November 2, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Hi Lisis, thanks for commenting on this. I’m so freaking old if I started my 10K hours I’d probably drop dead before I was done 🙂


Tristan Lee November 1, 2009 at 8:13 am

I’ve read the 10,000 hour rule chapter in Malcolm’s Outlier’s, The Story of Success, and it’s crazy how much time world class violinist spend in order to get from the top.

You would also think that great music from The Beatles or Harvard dropouts like Bill Gates just have natural talent, but the hours the spend on practicing what they wanted to do was ridiculously incomprehensible.

I agree with you that some people are born with natural talent, but to become the best at what you do, insane amounts of hours of practice is required. Thanks for sharing this post.
.-= Tristan Lee´s last blog ..Saying Hello to a Stranger: My Awkward One Second Experience =-.


Stephen Mills November 2, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Thanks Tristin and I think you have it right.


Nea | Self Improvement Saga November 1, 2009 at 12:36 pm

This was a very interesting article. I believe the key to it all is to do what you love. You don’t need talent, just pure desire and positive focus. If you love something, becoming great at it will feel like joy rather than work. You’ll accumulate every moment or hour that you need for greatness and it will be fun….because it is what you really want to do.

If you’re striving to be the next Michael Jordan because you want to make millions, rather than because you love the game of basketball, you’ll feel overwhelmed and you’ll fall short of the goal. The same goes for a person striving to do 10,000 hours of writing if they don’t love writing. Becoming great starts with doing what makes you feel great.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..Who Doesn’t Deserve Compassion? =-.


Stephen Mills November 2, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Hi Nea. I don’t think anyone could really practice that much unless they truly loved what they were doing 🙂


Ideas With A Kick November 1, 2009 at 5:03 pm

Like with most things, I think the truth about talent and practice is somewhere in the middle. New habits, skills, attitudes mean creating new neuronal pathways in the brain, an this can be a very hard process. This is why I believe in skills. They are neuronal superhighways that you already have.

On the other hand, practice, if it’s done in a deliberate way, stretching over long periods of time (like 5-10 years) can add up to quite a lot. At the end of the day, I prefer to leverage my talents and use practice from there.

.-= Ideas With A Kick´s last blog ..Enough with the mind reading: get a 360 feedback! =-.


Stephen Mills November 2, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Hi Eduard, I prefer my natural talents too. But it’s nice to know that you can do anything you want if you stay at it long enough.


Steven Aitchison November 2, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Hi Stephen, this is a wonderful post. I watched the Malcolm Gladwell video, he is a great speaker and I have seen him on Ted.com as well. His take on the modern day genius is totally thought provoking, I would recommend everybody to watch it.

I think with the 10,000 hour rule there is something that might have been left out of the equation, actually two. Focused attention and mind practice.

With focused attention we are totally consumed by what we are doing, we are in the zone, whereas with normal practice we may not always be in the zone, I would say most of the time we are not. So if we could learn to have focused attention we could bring down the 10,000 hours rule to may 1/3rd of that.

Also with people who display genius tendencies they practice a lot in their minds, whatever their chosen field is. So somebody like Einstein would practice solving mathematical equations in his head and even dreaming about it, so really these people are living their passion, quite literally.

If we had all of the above points from your post along with focused attention and mind practice imagine the results that could occur.

Sorry, I rambled a bit there, it was clear in my head what I was meaning 🙂
.-= Steven Aitchison´s last blog ..Sunday Siesta – Bloggers Who Have Quit Their Day Job =-.


Stephen Mills November 2, 2009 at 10:14 pm

Hi Steven. It came through clear to us 🙂 I was thinking about the visualization too. Some studies have shown it to be almost as good as real practice. Thanks for stopping by.


Paul November 2, 2009 at 6:47 pm

I think the term ‘talent’ is misunderstood. Instead of having a talent for a particular skill, such as basketball, those who excel have a talent for the work required to become great. Not so much the gift of a particular skill, but the gift of setting a goal, learning what needs to be practiced, and striving for continuous improvement.

If the measure of the goal is too external, such as being better than another person, I suspect that won’t work as well as a goal of improving upon a previous best effort. Yet, without external measures, how does a person know if they are improving?

Thanks for the thoughtful article.


Stephen Mills November 2, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Hi Paul. I agree and disagree. I certainly don’t think there is a “basketball” gene. But I do think there is a set of genes that yield natural athletic talent such as jumping ability or speed. You only have to look at the differences among young children to see that.

Clearly there are differences in each of us that we are born with. That can’t help but lead to different natural talents. Those talents are not specific necessarily but general talents that can be used for specific activities, such as basketball, or chess or whatever.


Vin - NaturalBias November 3, 2009 at 8:26 am

Great article, Stephen! The 10,000 hour / 10 year rule is often referenced by tennis authors. I’m fascinated by the idea of a lack of talent being compensated for by intelligent practice. I have Colvin’s book, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I agree that talent certainly isn’t irrelevant, but you can definitely still accomplish a lot without it.

I suppose it depends on personality to an extent, but I actually enjoy deliberate practice, especially with tennis. Granted, it can be unpleasant when pressured into practicing more than you’d like, but I tend to naturally be a hard worker and have a high tolerance for this. I could very easily practice tennis for 1 or 2 hours every day and be very happy about doing so. In fact, this is one thing that I’d definitely like to have enough time to do in the future.

Another interesting concept that relates to this is, but is from a somewhat opposing perspective, is focusing on your strengths. If you’re naturally pretty awful at something, even though you can still make significant improvements with a dedicated effort, it will likely be an uphill battle and may be more frustrating overall than rewarding. This is at least the philosophy behind StrengthsFinder 2.0 which suggests that you focus on your natural talents instead.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..Should We Trust the FDA? =-.


Grok November 3, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Great article. Thanks Vin for referring me here.
.-= Grok´s last blog ..Got Pests? Grok Doesn’t! =-.


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