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Geoffrey Colvin begins his book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers From Everybody Else by taking readers back to 1978 and into the corporate headquarters of Procter & Gamble, where two college graduates, one from Harvard and the other from Dartmouth, are given the task to sell Duncan Hines brownie mix.
Yet, they spend their spare time rewriting memos in adherence with the company’s strict rules, and every afternoon they play waste-bin basketball with wadded-up memos. According to one of them they were “voted as the two guys probably least likely to succeed” – perhaps because neither displayed ambition or had a career plan. These two men are Jeffrey R Immelt (CEO, General Electric) and Steven Ballmer (CEO, Microsoft).
Contrary to their colleagues’ expectations, today these two men have reached the pinnacle of corporate achievement. How did they accomplish so much? Researchers call this ‘deliberate practice’. The best artists, musicians, athletes and leaders do not merely work a lot – they put in a lot of effort and time towards developing specific skills.
K Anders Ericsson in his 1993 research paper ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’ further substantiates this theory. For Anders making a commitment to daily practice is not enough: “Deliberate practice requires focusing on one’s weaknesses and devising new ways to eliminate them – relentlessly”.
Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers states that it takes over 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ to become a world class expert in any field, while Calvin Coolidge once stated that “nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
In an article in Fortune published in 2005, Colvin described Immelt as ‘The Bionic Manager’ and highlighted his incredible ‘work ethic’; “he worked 100 hour weeks for 24 years”.
Ultimately, to become an expert in anything requires persistence and hard work, which is why very few people are willing to dedicate so much of their life to a single pursuit. So, while practice may get some of us close to perfection, for many it is an unattainable goal. But this is no reason not to give it a shot, because ultimately, the secret of mastering a skill or craft is never talent alone; it is practice and hard work.
– Jason Pereira
The writer is an HR professional at a multinational company.
First published in the Careers Section of The DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on January 12, 2014.