The Key to Greatness


The desire to succeed or achieve greatness runs deep, yet many struggle to realize it in the ups and downs of work and life. Set backs, disappointments and even unexpected opportunities take us off our game.

What is the key to greatness?

In almost every discipline, most of us learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop learning completely.Only a few continue to improve for years and years and eventually move on to greatness.

The winningest rower of all time is Sir Steve Redgrave, who received his fifth Olympic gold medal at 38 years of age. He has achieved a level of performance that most never dream of. Is his success available to all or is it the fortune of the lucky few with superior gifts?

Many have said that talents are deeply wired in our brains – innate gifts. Either we are prewired to be a successful golfer, musician, dancer, or business leader, or we aren’t. If we lack the wiring, we can perform at a reasonable level, but we should never expect to achieve extraordinary performance. Even Warren Buffett attributed his remarkable success to an innate gift. “I was wired at birth to allocate capital,” he said to Fortune in 2006.

Our prewiring is of little consequence

The good news is recent research shows that our prewiring is of little consequence! Researcher Michael J. Howe and his colleagues state in an extensive study of performance that “the evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [idea that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.” No Warren, it’s not how your brain is wired.

Two books, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, have popularized research from K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University and others first conducted in the 1990s that explain one of the primary drivers of greatness. The take away – nobody is great without practice. What the people who breakthrough seem to have is not an innate talent, but an understanding that there is no free lunch.

How much practice?

How much practice? Whether painting, doing brain surgery, or analyzing financials – developing world-class abilities takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice focuses just beyond one’s current capabilities. It occurs consistently every day. It provides clear feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

Steve Redgrave’s success took thousands of early morning hours training his muscles and his mind. Not just spending time on the water, but a focusing, laser-like, on technique and teamwork. Yo-Yo Ma’s greatness as a cellist comes from thousands of hours of stretching himself over and over, day after day. Working on music while continuing to practice the scales and other fundamental exercises.

The result of thousands of hours of deliberate practice – a brain rewired with extraordinary abilities. What are you practicing to be great at?