American Dan McLaughlin, aged 34, decided in April 2010 to quit his job as a photographer and, with no previous experience of the game, dedicate 10,000 hours of practice to golf. Half way through, he now has a handicap of four! If Dan’s plan goes well he could be playing alongside the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in 2018. Even if he doesn’t make that grade, he will still be a very good golfer.
I read this story on the BBC website and it discussed the work of a group of psychologists in Berlin, who had studied the practice habits of violin students in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
All had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age 20, the elite performers had averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only done 4,000 hours of practice.
They didn’t see any naturally gifted performers emerge and this surprised them. If natural talent had played a role it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect gifted performers to emerge after, say, 5,000 hours.
One of them Anders Ericsson concluded that “many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years”.
So great news! If you aren’t naturally gifted at something you can LEARN to become an expert through intense practise. For leaders and managers learning the ‘job’ while ‘doing the job’ is a natural educational process. Which is ideal if YOUR goal is to be a brilliant leader but not if you want to be a professional golfer!
How often have you attended a training course on a subject but then not had the chance to put new skills to work? Practise is an integral part of learning and without it we forget how to do things. If you practise a new skill until it becomes and unconscious competence then you will never lose it. Take driving a car or riding a bicycle as an example, I haven’t ridden a bicycle for well over ten years but I know I could jump on one right now and ride away.
If you believe (and I do) that you can become an expert in anything given enough practise, then the challenge comes when the thing you want to learn is not your day job! Finding time to practise is a real discipline. I went to school with Nick Gillingham MBE who went on to swim at three Olympic games and briefly held a world record. He swam seven days a week including TWO HOURS of practise every morning before school. He put equal effort into his schoolwork.
The sheer dedication and focus of people like Nick is what sets them apart from the rest. Many people have realised that to reach their dream they have to make a decision to focus 100% just on that. I admire the courage of anyone that makes the decision to be the very best at what they want to do/be whether it is sports or business related.