Legacy, Diligence and Birthdays for Tiger and LeBron

Today two of the greatest athletes in the world will celebrate their birthdays.  Tiger Woods and LeBron James have become universally recognized for their mastery of their craft.  James, while not at the level of Tiger Woods, has had some remarkable accomplishments of his own.  What’s the secret?

(Fortune Magazine) — What makes Tiger Woods great? What made Berkshire Hathaway (Charts) Chairman Warren Buffett the world’s premier investor? We think we know: Each was a natural who came into the world with a gift for doing exactly what he ended up doing. As Buffett told Fortune not long ago, he was “wired at birth to allocate capital.” It’s a one-in-a-million thing. You’ve got it – or you don’t.

Well, folks, it’s not so simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don’t exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that’s demanding and painful.
Buffett, for instance, is famed for his discipline and the hours he spends studying financial statements of potential investment targets. The good news is that your lack of a natural gift is irrelevant – talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. You can make yourself into any number of things, and you can even make yourself great.

Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Understand that talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, “The evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”

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While Woods and James are often perceived as “naturals,” the research tends to suggest something far different.  There may be a genetic factor of some quantifiable sort that can get you on the field, but that factor is insufficient to make you a dominant performer.

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.

Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, “Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.”

Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It’s the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

Happy Birthday young men.  Diligence pays.

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It was written on temple walls thousands of years ago:

“Be diligent as long as you live, always doing more than is commanded of you.  Do not misuse your time while following your heart, for it is offensive to the soul t waste one’s time.  Do not loose the daily opportunity to increase that which you have.  Diligence produces gains and gains do not endure when diligence is abandoned. “

2 comments

  1. Malcolm Gladwell arrives at a similar conclusion in his latest book. And I read an old comment of yours at P6 where you describe how ostensibly poor and lazy blacks are disproportionately successful in the highest risk/highest reward pursuits of sports, music, and narcotrafficking. With Barack Obama’s victory, I hope for a resurgence of well-considered and dynamic black political participation of the kind that characterized the first half of the twentieth century.

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