Lead International

The Path to World Class

January 25th, 2011 by ITAdmin

The Path to World Class

Steve Collins

©2009 Lead International

Having fully bought into the idea that operating out of your strengths is the only way to go and that “talent” is the distinguishing factor in determining strength, I felt due diligence required me to purchase Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated. Fortunately, Colvin didn’t dismiss the importance of strengths, but rather provided some interesting observations on how world class performers get that designation. However, Colvin certainly doesn’t try to make being world class sound like an easy process. If anything, it is a call to a long, hard journey.

According to Colvin’s research, great performance is not just a matter of having experience since we see great variations in performance levels among people with similar experience levels. Also, he argues that inborn or “natural” talent fails as an explanation since there are too many exceptions to the rule for both those with natural advantages yet never excel, and those who overcome limitations to become standouts. Finally, the connection between general intelligence and memory doesn’t provide a consistent linkage with great performance.

The real key to great performance, according to Colvin, is deliberate practice. The old saying, “practice makes perfect,” may conjure up images of a piano teacher or sports coach.  Simply running through the same drills without much thought or intentionality may qualify as “practice time,” but you are probably just reinforcing the same good and bad habits and not really moving to a higher level of performance. Colvin argues that deliberate practice is “designed” practice, typically designed by someone else who can see more clearly the areas needing the most work and learning. Noel Tichy identifies three concentric circles related to performance improvement. The inner circle is the “comfort zone,” the middle is the “learning zone,” and the outside circle is the “panic zone.” Deliberate practice takes place in the learning zone where we are practicing skills we have yet to master, but in which we have support to move towards performance improvement.

Deliberate practice should also allow for high repetition. Colvin’s research is consistent with other current findings in which often, what has been called natural talent has really been the result of a favorable environment that allows some individuals unique opportunities to practice skills from an early age. Tiger Woods received recognition as a child prodigy, but Colvin notes all the contributing environmental factors such as a father who was an expert golfer and coach with lots of time to invest in his son. Both father and son were very intentional in their approach to the game of golf. Malcolm Gladwell calls the time required as the “10,000 hour rule,” while Colvin cites research pointing towards 10 years. Regardless of which number is correct, the point is obvious, great performers are only “overnight sensations” because nobody was paying attention to them during the years of deliberate practice.

Colvin also notes that deliberate practice requires continuous feedback and is highly demanding mentally. Also, it isn’t much fun. The final descriptor is probably the reason most of us stop short of becoming world class. We reach the level where it is easy to be satisfied. We have reached a level of success, we are better than most, and we may still feel good that we are investing time in our development. Of course, by this point, just about all of that time investment is occurring in our “comfort zone.” To push ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally requires an internal drive that, as we get older, often gets diluted with the demands of life.

The book’s final chapter specifically asks the question, “Where does the passion come from?” Colvin looks at research on creative thinking and the impact of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. The general view has been that extrinsic rewards often constrain creative thinking and great performance and that intrinsic rewards are the only real drivers. However, Colvin finds compelling arguments that at certain points in the process of high performance, extrinsic rewards are critical. For example, at the beginning of the process, external threats kept individuals on track and persevering through the “un-fun” parts of deliberate practice. Recitals and contests are often helpful in this phase as they provide opportunities to receive external praise and recognition. Eventually, great performers must take ownership for their own motivation and set their own goals. But for most, recognition and praise is helpful in confirming that they are making progress towards being the best.

Colvin’s book certainly has implications for parents and organizational leaders. He cites a study by Benjamin Bloom of 120 young star performers in a variety of fields. The most consistent message from parents was, “To excel, to do one’s best, and to spend one’s time constructively.” Parents also played the key role of finding the right teachers and making sure the kids practiced. Another study of high achievers revealed that the home environments were characterized by “stimulating” environments with lots of opportunities to learn and high academic expectations and “supportive” environments with clear structure and roles and high levels of trust. Organizations must also find ways to create this culture of stimulation and support to develop an environment for deliberate practice to be the norm and not the exception.

As children, we all dream of being world class in some area, sports, entertainment, politics, etc., and yet, for most, it remains a dream. Colvin’s book, describes a level playing field at the beginning but one that gets decidedly slanted for those coming late to the game. To Colvin’s credit he ends his book by asking two important questions for those pondering the path of deliberate practice to achieve world class status. The first one, “What do you really want?” emphasizes the size of the sacrifice you are willing to make. The second question, “What do you really believe?” deals with getting past the self limiting belief that no path to greatness exists because you lack the natural talent.

While becoming world class is certainly a noble goal, the power of Colvin’s research lies in an effective method for improvement both individually and organizationally. Most of us recognize that remaining at the same level in every aspect of our life from this point until we die, is a rather dismal prospect. Knowing that it is possible to become a better parent, golfer, sales person, or cook, makes getting up in the morning a little easier. Through deliberate practice we can create a virtuous cycle where we experience the benefits of improved performance such as greater enjoyment, self esteem, and even greater purpose in our lives.

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