The Formula to Human Achievement

How often do you ask yourself the following question: Am I reaching my full potential? Thought leaders Marcus Buckingham, Dan Pink, Geoff Colvin and Malcolm Gladwell have. They all recommend different roads to the ultimate goal of maximum human achievement.

For Buckingham, the key is playing to your strengths. He suggests we should be asking ourselves the following questions. Do I have an opportunity to do what I do best every day and am I focusing on my strengths or minimizing my weaknesses?

For Pink, the central issue is motivation driven by autonomy, mastery and purpose. He speaks of autonomy as the desire to direct our own work lives by not having our manager standing over our shoulders micromanaging us. He characterizes mastery as the urge to get better at something that matters, the continuation of our development and the enhancement of our capacity to make a difference in the world. He defines purpose as the doing of something that is bigger than us by performing tasks that truly matter.

For Colvin, the fundamental issue is dedication. While talent matters, he claims that deliberate practice can overcome the lack of talent. For him, focus and hard work matter more than innate ability.

Folks in the Colvin camp buy in to the 10,000 hour rule. The notion that we cannot call ourselves experts in anything until we have put in 10,000 hours of perfect practice. What does 10,000 hours look like? 50 weeks per year X 40 hours per week + 5 years equals 10,000 hours.

History is littered with examples of the 10,000 hour rule.
• Mozart succeeded late in his career. He didn’t get great until after he had 10,000 hours of practice.
• The Beatles performed 1,200 times before they finally broke through with their first hit record after 10 years as musicians.
• Tiger Woods began playing golf when he was 7 months old.
• Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was turned down 30 times by publishers.
• Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime yet 800 of his paintings are now masterpieces.
• Single welfare mom J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novel was rejected by 9 publishers. 450,000,000 copies were later sold worldwide.
• Thomas Edison failed over 1000 times before he perfected the light bulb.

Gladwell suggests that while hard work is critical to success, successful people were often lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He defends this argument by looking at trends of the richest citizens in the history of the USA. Besides the fact they were all white men, Gladwell claims they were well on the path to wealth due to the year they were born. All of these men were born between 1831 and 1840. They took advantage of the early years of the industrial revolution, the formation of a national banking system and the infancy of railroad transportation networks. According to Gladwell, if these barons had been born a little earlier or later, they would have missed out on these opportunities.

What is the secret to human achievement? I think it involves a little bit of all these variables. We have to play to our strengths and hide our weaknesses. We have to stay motivated. We must be dedicated and work hard. Finally, it helps to be lucky. After all luck is simply that rare moment when preparation and opportunity meet.

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Mark Hammer

There are probably better, and more recent books, but I know and like this one. It is also quite accessible, and covers a variety of domains, so I will recommend “The Road to Excellence”, editted by Anders Ericsson, the guy who first positted the 10,000hr rule. http://www.amazon.com/The-Road-Excellence-Acquisition-Performance/dp/0805822321

I suppose there are two major aspects to what leads to optimal/expert performance. One is the motivational and behavioural side. That is, what is it in the individual’s actions and circumstances that lead to high achievement? In one sense that is the answer to the unspoken question: How on earth does someone GET to 10,000hrs?

The other side/aspect is the cognitive one. That is, regardless of what it was that got them there, just what is it that is different about the thinking of experts and high achievers? What do you get out of it after 10,000hrs of the “right” kind of practice?

Where the heck DID that 10,000hr rule come from? Much of the earliest research on expertise came from study of chess players. And it came from that, not because there was anything particularly special about them, but rather because there is a recognized system in place for ranking them internationally, such that one could reliably assemble a group of chess experts, novices and in-betweeners, for comparison. And one of the things that emerged about the folks in the expert ranks was that they had thousands and thousands of hours behind them.

Certainly one of the biggest grumbles from many who reject the “10,000hr rule” (and I’ve had to deal with many in class) is the undeniable experience by many of having put in the time and practice, but not achieving the desired/expected benefit. Inevitably, this disconnect between practice and achievement-level leads many to propose, and accept, that high achievement comes from something innate to the person, because as far as they know, practice got them nowhere.

One of Ericsson’s departmental colleagues, Neil Charness, studied prodigies and coaches, and once told me that what made for best coaching was structuring the experiences of the learner, and also drawing their attention to what to derive from those learning experiences, such that their “knowledge base” was interconnected in a useful way. The 10,000hrs doesn’t lead to the highest levels of achievement unless it consists of the right experiences in the right order at the right time. Some of that is sheer dumb luck, some of it is through deliberate instruction, or deliberately seeking out what to learn or focus on at this point in time, and some of it lies in circumstances (as we often see in experts who happened to grow up in a family of high achievers in the same field).

And certainly what Ericsson and so many of his fellow researchers have found is that it is the structure of the knowledge base that differentiates experts and high achievers from novices. A big part of what distinguishes them is their acquired ability to know what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Another part is the interconnectedness of what they know in their area of achievement, such that they can get to anything from just about anything else. That is what allows them to be flexible in their thinking and be able to approach a problem or challenge in their area of expertise from many diferent angles.

This is where the different aspects of motivation that Buckingham, Pink, and Colvin note, and the “right sequence” in learning/practice, come together to produce the result. The high achiever is motivated to link the things they learn. Each bit of new learning assists what is already known, and is connected to it. That can arise out of fortuitous circumstances, deliberate instruction, or simply because the learner is persisting in not just practicing or gathering disconnected information about some area, but in making sense of it. The urge to master also guides the learning we seek, and what we do with that new knowledge.

There is much in the way of human achievement we tend to overlook, or not think of as expertise. Neil has studied so-called “savants”, and finds that these “rain man” types do not come by their remarkable skills spontaneously. They are the beneficiaries of the 10,000 rule too, spending every waking moment practicing or thinking about the domain where they show an exceptional ability that stands in contrast to all those things they *can’t* do. I would often remind stdents to ponder human language, and the ridiculously high computational demands we manage to so easily grapple with every day, constantly, even when severely compromised by brain damage, illness, or even on their death bed. IF you thought 10,000hrs got you somewhere, try a few hundred thousand hours!