What is it that makes a speaker amazing? Is it a set of personal characteristics that enable great speakers to capture and keep our attention? Is it their brains? Their sense of humor? Their sincerity and empathy? Or were they born with a talent to talk?
We could ask similar questions about golfers, tennis champs, chess masters, or quarterbacks. Why is it that certain people get a disproportionate share of the talent? Science has something to say about this.
In fact, there are some researchers who say, discreetly, that the very existence of talent is not supported by evidence .
If this is true, our belief in this "thing we call talent" misdirects our efforts and undermines our potential to develop ourselves and others.
In fact, some scientists point to a more accurate view of how top performers in any field achieve their remarkable results. They call it Deliberate Practice.
In his book Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin lays out the elements of Deliberate Practice (DP).
DP is meant to improve performance.
It is engineered to address particular weaknesses that the performer has. It is almost always designed and implemented by a teacher, coach, or expert of some kind.
DP consists of endless repetition and excruciating boredom.
Most of us practice what we're good at because it feels good, and we do it until we get tired.
Top performers practice what they're bad at, even though it's frustrating and humiliating, and they do it to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. They go until they break down old habits, and have to develop new ones.
DP provides continuous feedback.
Every swing of the club, every passage in the concerto, every word in the speech, every marketing tactic undertaken, is assessed, measured, compared, and diagnosed for improvement.
DP is mentally demanding.
Practitioners must maintain the quality of their attention and avoid mindless repetition. The more we concentrate on the task, the less time needed to improve.
DP takes discipline, drive, and desire.
In fact, few of us have the stomach for it. It requires strong belief in yourself to endure the long mental, emotional, and physical struggle needed to achieve world class performance.
This actually could be good news for you and your company. Since so few companies use the principles of DP, if you're willing to put in the work, you won't have much competition.
So, if you're game, here's what to do before, during, and after the implementation of a DP program in your company.
Before the work:
Set goals, not only for outcomes, but for how you will achieve the outcomes. Top performers focus on the process, and even on one aspect of the process.
Mikaela Schiffrin, the phenom of the U.S. Olympic ski team, is known to win races, not by envisioning results, but by executing her process. If you and your top talent want to get better at something, set goals, design a process, and then execute.
During the work:
Like an athlete, the candidate needs to self-regulate--to be mindful of what's happening in the moment.
For instance, the best distance runners scan their heart rate and breathing to keep a steady ratio between steps and breaths. Average runners tend to think about anything other than what they're doing because what they're doing is painful and boring.
In the case of office workers doing purely mental work, elite performers monitor what they're thinking--in other words, they think about their own thinking, and make adjustments.
They have emotional intelligence and social skill on top of knowledge, experience, and drive.
After the work:
Measure progress against a chosen standard. Create a scorecard or assessment form. Get feedback from a variety of sources.
Average people are content to say they did well, OK, or poorly. Top performers are more specific. They measure themselves against a standard that is relevant to what they are trying to achieve.
Standards are diverse. They could be the candidate's last effort, or the results achieved by a competitor. Too high a standard is discouraging. Too low and the candidate will get less advancement. What you do with the evaluation of the performance will determine the success of the DP.
Assessing the data, setting new goals, designing new methods to achieve them--these are actions that elite performers take.
The price is high, but so are the rewards. Few are willing to take it to the limit. But most of us can learn how to use the elements of Deliberate Practice and put them to work for our own purposes.
Those who do will stand out.