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Want to be truly excellent at what you do? Practice!

“This idea – that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice – surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours. “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, “this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over ten years…No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.””

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell is a renowned columnist and author, and was recently featured in this column as he is now one of the world’s 10 most respected management thinkers. His first two books, ‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘Blink’ were international bestsellers and are required reading for anyone curious about the human world. His new tome, ‘Outliers’, equally does not disappoint.

‘Outliers’ contains much that is worth recounting here, and will feature in Thought Leadership again. This week, I want to highlight just one key aspect. Gladwell recounts a famous experiment conducted in the early 1990s by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues in Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. They divided the group’s violinists into three groups: the ‘stars’ who might become world-class soloists; the merely ‘good’; and those unlikely to ever play professionally. The three groups were then asked to calculate how many hours of practice they had put in since first picking up a violin.

Most had started playing from around the age of five. And guess what? The elite performers had all put in 10,000 hours of practice; the average ones had done 8,000; and the bottom tier had totalled just 4,000 hours. The psychologists didn’t find any ‘naturals’ – people who were effortlessly superior, who floated up even though they put in very few hours. So what distinguished the mediocre performer from the outstanding one? Hard work!

This was known by Aristotle all those years ago in ancient Greece, when he stated: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” What is true of musicians is true of columnists, managers, lawyers, painters and sportsmen. You think Tiger Woods is a genius? Take a look at the hours of practice he puts in. You think David Beckham was the word’s best free-kick taker in his hey-day? Trying practicing kicks as much as he did, and perhaps you, too, will bend it like Beckham.

Anyone aspiring to true excellence in any field has no choice: you have to put in the hours. Not just hours of repeating the same task or routine, mind: hours of trying out new things, pushing boundaries, performing difficult and complex procedures, and polishing and refining skills. Whether you are a Tiger Woods or a Bill Gates; a Mozart or a Cezanne; a Steve Jobs or a Barack Obama: you put in the hours to raise your game.

This should give great hope to anyone who wants to make it big. The talent you are supposedly ‘born’ with matters a great deal less than the hours of practice you are willing to put in. True expertise comes from trying things out, from failing and learning from your mistakes, from falling flat and then picking yourself up, from doing something repeatedly until you finally GET IT RIGHT.

So, if you want to excel, take your eyes off the red herrings. We are all too keen to blame our upbringing, our lack of opportunities, the dearth of funding, or the role of networks in preventing our rise. The truth is, if you’re willing to put in the hours of intelligent and determined practice, you can make it.

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