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What We Don’t Know About Greatness

In general terms, all of us know what it takes to get better at something. We heard it at home and in school.
To get better at something, you work hard. That’s the short version.
Dr. Anders Ericsson, world expert on how people improve, goes into a bit more detail in a research paper. The title is fancy: “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Fancy title, but it comes down to how people get good.
The paper contains a sentence that’s beautiful to anyone in the business of improvement. It goes like this:
“On the basis of several thousand years of education, along with more recent laboratory research on learning and skill acquisition, a number of conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance have been uncovered.”
Really? Please tell us what they are!!! And Ericsson does.
“The most cited condition concerns the subject’s motivation to attend to the task and exert performance to improve their performance.”
Ericsson lists other conditions, but let’s look closely at “the most cited” one, attending to the task.
Everybody who loves to play basketball is motivated to go into the gym. But people who are serious about improvement go into the gym with a different mindset. They attend to task. They work on the thing they’re supposed to be working on.
Great performers pick out a very specific area of their game. For instance, a basketball player might spend lots of time on receiving the ball and putting it into shooting position. Or working on the footwork necessary to execute a hook shot. That’s how you really improve.You decide what’s most important to your game, and you focus on it.
Now let’s look at the second part of that sentence — “exert effort to improve performance.” Improvement is more than just working up a sweat. You can run around in the gym for hours and not get any better. It was coach John Wooden who famously said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”
This process of attending to task and exerting effort to improve performance is the core of something we call deliberate practice. And deliberate practice is how anyone gets good at anything: piano, magic tricks, writing, cross-examining a witness, hitting a baseball.
So we know how people get good at what they do. What we don’t know is why some people are willing to undertake deliberate practice while others are not. This is the jackpot question. This is where invisible gems come from.
A person who doesn’t seem to have much skill might be raging to improve. Slowly but surely, by attending to task and exerting effort, that person will improve. The ugly duckling turns into a swan. The person with the unimpressive resume becomes a star. The player who was drafted as an afterthought outshines all those who came before.
So anyone interested in finding and hiring invisible gems must understand that the dimension of deliberate practice exists. It doesn’t exist in a lot of people. It exists only for the very few. But those very few are the ones who become great, and the ones who have real impact when it comes to helping organizations be great.


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