The business best seller list, complete with extensive advice to first discover your strengths, while you go from good to great, and build yourself to last, might tempt you to think leveraging strengths will be enough to ensure your success. It won’t.
Certainly, to be world class at anything, you have to start with raw talent. But becoming an expert will also require you to push yourself to improve in some aspect of your job that you don’t do well-or at all.
The brilliant operations manager, for example, can’t steadfastly refuse to learn finance if she hopes to stay competitive in her current role, much less climb the ladder to the COO or CEO position. She’ll have to continue to leverage her strengths, but she’ll also need to practice ever-more-difficult aspects of her current job and to anticipate the needs of future ones.
Researcher Anders Ericsson introduced “The 10,000-Hour Rule,” which he and his team formulated after following the lives of professional musicians and contrasting them to those non-professional musicians who had also started playing an instrument at the same age. The research showed that the professionals steadily increased their practice time every year until, by the age of twenty, they had reached ten thousand hours. No “natural” musicians floated to the top with less practice.
Is The 10,000-Hour Rule a general imperative for success? Will we find virtuosos of every stripe proving it? Generally speaking, yes. Those whom we would consider virtuosos in business have usually worked in their area of expertise for at least five years. If these people worked a forty-hour work week, fifty weeks a year, they would have “practiced” approximately two-thousand hours a year, thus supporting the rule.
Ericsson and his colleagues studied top performers in a wide variety of domains, including surgery, chess, music, and ballet. They found some commonalities among them: they had practiced intensively and studied with devoted teachers. In other words, experts are always made, not born. (I contend that an exceptional performer is born with talent, but I agree with Ericsson’s conclusion that if people allow talent to languish, they end up no better off than those who didn’t have the talent to start with).
The message comes through loud and clear: You can’t just get better at what you’re already good at. You need to broaden your expertise. This does not imply, for example, that R & D scientists needs to learn accounting, but they should understand the financial strategy of the organization so they can determine the most productive uses of their time and concentrate on those things that will grow the top line in the organization.
Clearly, the experts Ericsson studied did not enter the august body of exceptional performers without practice. But it’s not just any practice they pursued-they struggled, sacrificed, sought feedback, and honestly self-assessed. In other words, they engaged in deliberate practice that focused on tasks beyond their current level of competence and comfort. Deliberate practice involves improving skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your abilities. Experts also often use well-informed coaches, not only to guide them trough the deliberate practice, but also to help them learn to coach themselves.
Exploiting passion will bring tremendous pleasure and enjoyment, but challenging yourself to practice your expertise in the arena of the scary will bring its own reward. Moving outside your traditional comfort zone of achievement requires substantial motivation and sacrifice, but it’s a necessary discipline. In other words, if you never fail, you won’t stay an expert long.
Virtuosos understand that restraint won’t bring satisfaction. Accepting growing pains and embracing deliberate practice will.