The Wonderful, Empowering Secret of Achieving Excellence

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint…The greats were great ’cause they paint a lot” – Macklemore

I saw a post in a LinkedIn forum the other day that started off by saying, “We all know that talents are unchanging but skills can be improved…”

And that’s as far as I got before disagreeing entirely with the premise.  Why such a snap judgement?  Well, to be blunt, because the premise itself is wrong.  But more importantly, not only is it wrong – it perpetuates a destructive mind-set.

To expand a bit: I’ve read a great deal about what it takes to develop expertise in complex tasks, and am now convinced by the research that we humans are truly, utterly, remarkably adaptable creatures, who possess an immense ability to achieve excellence with enough practice.

I didn’t always think this way.  Growing up, I saw the things at which I excelled (numbers come easily, yay!), and I was aware of those things at which I struggled (booo, art and languages), and I assumed there was some innate reason for the differences.  The pattern in my case, as with many people, was to keep doing the things that seemed to come easily and to generally avoid the “less natural” activities; of course, this only furthered the split.  I still struggle with accepting failure as the natural price of progress.

In recent years, however, and thanks to books like Outliers, Talent is Overrated, and (especially) Bounce, I’ve come to understand how expertise is truly attained.  I’ve also developed a deep disdain for the talent myth and the destructive fixed mind-set that permeates our society and, I believe, unfairly holds people back.

Sadly, the truth is that if you believe (or teach) that talents are innate (what is called a fixed mind-set), then you will be limiting yourself.  As Matthew Syed says in Bounce: “If we believe that attaining excellence hinges on talent, we are likely to give up if we show insufficient early promise.  And this will be perfectly rational, given the premise.”

The true path to excellence is a bumpy one, filled with falls (wipe-outs on the mountain bike), misses, failures, etc.  But it is those very failures that confirm that we are walking the right path:

“Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again.  Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavor, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations…The paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary failure…a growth mind-set is perfectly suited to the achievement of excellence; a fixed mind-set, to the achievement of mediocrity.” – Matthew Syed in Bounce

So I bristle when I see the fixed mind-set stated casually as a given.  I wholly agree with Syed that,”The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory; it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and society.” (Bounce – p112)

Thankfully, I’ve seen signs that people are changing their thinking.  I was recently at Echo Beach in Toronto to see Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.  While better known for their catchy Thrift Shop and equal rights anthem Same Love, the hip hop duo also have a song called Ten Thousand Hours.  In this track, Macklemore raps that, “Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands…Ten thousand hands, they carry me”.  Later, demonstrating a wonderful growth mind-set, he says, “I stand here in front of you today all because of an idea…I could be who I wanted if I could see my potential”.  Then, consistent with the accurate and all-too-forgotten saying, “practice makes perfect”, he adds:

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint…The greats were great ’cause they paint a lot” – Macklemore (no offense to Ryan Lewis, but I believe Macklemore writes the lyrics)

Of all the concerts that I’ve been to, this was the first for which almost every fan sang along to every song.  It was actually pretty remarkable, and no doubt the result of the passion and emotion evoked by the subject matter: substance abuse, the practice theory of excellence (Ten Thousand Hours includes a reference to Malcolm Gladwell), civil rights, and commercialization are all tackled.  I couldn’t help but find inspiration in hearing several thousand (it looked like more than five thousand) people sing along to a song about practicing diligently to achieve your dreams.

I couldn’t help but find inspiration in hearing several thousand people sing along to a song about practicing diligently to achieve your dreams.

In fact, it got me thinking about areas where I can apply myself and increase my own abilities – perhaps not ten thousand hours of investment, mind you, but enough to develop a new skill (I haven’t played a musical instrument in 20 years, I’m a weak swimmer, and I’m a poor storyteller).  The key is that growth mind-set: if you believe you can grow (and you should, because the research is very clear on this point) then there’s nothing stopping you!

Now, enjoy some pics.

Macklemore in Toronto

Macklemore dropping some lines at Toronto’s Echo Beach

Macklemore crowd-walks

Macklemore does the crowd walk

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Posted in Everything, Leadership

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