Excellence Is Always Possible

The idea of talents or special gift is a myth, writes Tony Schwartz in a recent blog post at the Harvard Business Review. Have you stopped yourself from trying new activities or working hard at difficult pursuits by telling yourself you lack talent for the specific endeavor? It’s time to reroute this way of thinking.

Schwartz shares the comment of Will Durant, who was channeling Aristotle’s thoughts, “We are what we repeatedly do.” That’s right. We aren’t born tennis players, star quarterbacks or successful CEOs. And we don’t need an innate ability to master a task. Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, has found in his work with executives “that it is possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest.”

We’ve talked before about the idea of 10,000 hours: many researchers believe 10,000 hours of practice is the bare necessity to garner expertise in any complicated domain. This means mastering any activity, from racquetball to writing, involves “frustration, struggle, setbacks and failures,” writes Schwartz. The reward is simple: success at something you care about via hard work is satisfying.

Schwartz gives us six keys to achieving excellence. Here’s an abbreviated (and paraphrased) version of his tips:

1. Pursue what you love: passion motivates us.

2. Do the hardest work first: practice in the morning before other endeavors because we all have good energy in the a.m.

3. Practice intensely: practice for no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break.

4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses: look for simple, precise advice, and don’t seek too much feedback, which can create anxiety.

5. Take regular renewal breaks: Relaxing rejuvenates us and helps embed learning.

6. Ritualize practice: Create specific, absolute times for practice. It’s not about will and discipline, but about creating habits so you practice automatically.

So remember, excellence is always possible when we care about something enough and are able to, as well as choose to, dedicate the resources to working at it in a focused and consistent process.

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