By Geoff Colvin (2008)
Great performance is more valuable than ever – but where does it really come from?
Extensive research in a wide range of fields show that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.
The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something that researchers called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved and then work intently on them. Example the great soprano Joan Sutherland devoted countless hours to practice her trill – and not just the basic trill, but the many different types (whole-tone, semitone, baroque). The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s on to the next aspect.
Choosing these aspects of performance is itself an important skill. Noel Tichy, a professor at University of Michigan business school illustrates the point by drawing 3 concentric circles. He labels the inner circle “comfort zone”, the middle one “learning zone”, and the outer one “panic zone.” Only by choosing activities in the learning zone can one make progress. That’s the location of skills and abilities that are just out of reach. We can never make progress in the comfort zone because those are the activities we can already do easily, while panic-zone activities are so hard that we don’t even know how to approach them.
High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. Repeating a a specific activity over and over is what most of us mean by practice, yet for most of us it isn’t especially effective. For example, the author practices his golf by hitting golf balls – on the driving range.
Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity in the learning zone. The author’s golf practice certainly failed on that criterion, since he wasn’t focused on doing anything in particular.
The other is the amount of repetition. Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent. Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would practice hitting until his hands bled. The most effecitve deliberate practice activities are those that can be repeated at high volume.
You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen : You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring. Hence, it is important to get feedback. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities.
The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that 4-5 hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to 90 minutes.
Step one, is knowing what you want to do. The key word is not what, but knowing. Self regulation begins with setting goals. These are not big, life-directing goals, but instead are more immediate goals for what you’re going to be doing today.
Before the work
In the research, the poorest performers don’t set goals at all, they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome – win the order; close out my positions at a profit, get the new project proposal done. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome. For example, instead of just winning the order, their goal might be to focus especially hard on discerning the customer’s unstated needs.
During the work
The most important self-regulatory skill that top performers use during their work is self-observation. For example, elite runnrs focus intensely on themselves; counting their breaths and simultanesouly count their strides. Such people observe their own thinking and ask : What abilities are being taxed in this situation? Can i try out another skill here? Could I be pushing myself a little further?
After the work
Excellent performers judge themselves differently from the way other people do. They’re more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. The best performers judge themselves against a standard that’s relevant for what they’re trying to achieve.