Amazingly, she did so by her natural grace, charm and wit. Having no
experience with princes or balls, she became the star of the show, with
no prior coaching, preparation or experience. She simply believed it
could be true and it was.
Alas, Cinderella, much like many stories of great accomplishment, is a
fairy tale. We love hearing about the moment of triumph; the shot at
the buzzer, the photo finish and the medals at the podium. The truth is
boring – endless hours, repeated frustration and constant exhaustion.
Here are 5 principles that determine whethe-r it’s all worth it.
1. Talent is Overrated
In his sophomore year, Michael Jordan couldn’t make his high school varsity basketball team. Albert Einstein failed his first college entrance exam. Immanuel Kant didn’t publish anything significant until he was fifty years old. Outstanding achievers often show very little early promise.
Interestingly, the opposite is also true. There is a body of research that suggests that early giftedness is a minor factor in later achievement. One study
that tracked Presidential Scholars found that few of those who were
identified as exceptional in their teens went on to fame and fortune as
adults (although they were more successful than average).
That doesn’t mean that talent doesn’t help, it does. Besides the
ability itself, those who show promise are given more encouragement than
others, which leads to a multiplier effect. They get more attention
and more opportunities to hone their skills. So ability is worth
having. After all, Michael Jordan wouldn’t have made the NBA if he were
Still the evidence suggests that once a threshold is passed, more ability doesn’t help very much. Richard Feynman,
considered one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, had an IQ of
125, above average but by no means unusual or even exceptional.
2. Deliberate Practice
So if talent doesn’t lead to greatness, what does? The answer is practice. As Anders Ericsson, a noted authority on expertise and performance, showed in his highly cited paper on deliberate practice,
it takes about 10,000 hours of training to become world class in any
field. Yet it isn’t just the time you put in, it’s how you spend it.
He illustrates the point with a golf example. When you start out, it
is hard to hit the ball straight enough to finish a game. With some
practice (he estimates 50 hours), an average person will be able to hit
the ball effectively and can enjoy playing. However, after that most
people don’t develop much further.
The reason is that they stop trying to improve, working on their weak
areas and doing things that aren’t fun. If you want to be the best,
you always need to be getting better.
3. Focus on Fundamentals
When I first got to college, I got a rude awakening into the world of
Division I athletics. It wasn’t that everybody was really, really
good, I expected that, it’s what they spent their time on.
Our freshman class was full of high achievers. All of us had been
stars in high school, won big tournaments, made all star teams and so
on. So it surprised us, to say the least, that our coach started us out
on fundamentals, the stuff we hadn’t really practiced since we were
kids. We were all really, really bad at basic skills.
We had all thought that the basic stuff was for beginners and we had
gone far past that. In reality, we soon found that the higher you go up
in competition, the more time you spend drilling. Later, when I began
to work out with Team Foxcatcher (a training center for Olympic
hopefuls), I found that even world champions continually practice
Look around and you’ll find that in any field, the very best get that
way not by learning advanced skills (that comes with time), but by
continuing to hone primary ones long after others have forgotten them.
4. Train to Beat the Best
Among the most common misperceptions is that top performers “do what
it takes to win.” That’s important, but not nearly enough. You have to
train to beat the best.
One of the red flags I’ve noticed in poor performers is that they
have a tendency to talk down the competition. They assume that their
opponents will not work hard or think creatively or devote enough
resources. They always assume that there will be some mistake they can
True excellence comes from beating the best at their best, not
getting lucky on somebody else’s bad day. To do that, you have to
constantly seek out the best competition, partners and teammates.
Surround yourself with mediocrity and you might find it easier to feel
good about yourself, but you’ll never achieve any true level of
5. It Takes a Lot of Love
By now it should be clear that very little of this is very
pleasurable. In fact, most of it really sucks. Honing your weaknesses,
practicing fundamentals till they become second nature and finding the
discipline to do away with all of the petty distractions that entertain
your ego, these things don’t come easy. They are contrary to human
To be good at anything (truly good, not just good enough for local
bragging rights) you need to be pushed and learn to push yourself. It’s
frustrating, exhausting and you go through long periods where it really
doesn’t seem worth the effort.
You shoot for the Zeno’s paradox of perfection, always closing half the distance, but never really arriving at your destination.
So that brings us to the true secret of success. To succeed in any
field of endeavor, you have to love it. Not merely want to be
recognized or to get rich or to make your mother happy, but to do
something for its own sake, because getting it right, or even coming
close, is something that stirs the very depths of your soul.
It’s not always fun, but it is eminently rewarding.