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How to Be Great

November 9, 2006

The title of this post might lead you to believe that I’m great, but at this point probably only a few close friends and family members would voice that opinion. I should at least be able to count on my wife and my mom, right? And my kids aren’t old enough to have gotten cynical about me yet, so maybe there’s a couple more points.

Anyway, I’m referring to a Fortune article that VC Confidential’s Matt McCall has done a good job of summarizing and adding some words of wisdom to. The article’s basic premise is that people who’ve achieved greatness have done so through…wait for it…practice!

That sounds a little useless, but only if you take “practice” to mean mindlessly doing the same thing repeatedly. Instead, real practice is the hard work of continuously trying to improve instead of just going through the motions.

Here are the 5 points McCall distilled from the article. Realize that not all of these are going to be easy to relate to your life or your job, but you could probably relate them if you were willing to…practice. I’ll tell you how I stack up against the great ones, if you’ll tell me how you stack up:

1) Approach each critical task with an explicit goal of getting much better at it. The example, in golf, is not to just hit golf balls for an hour, but specifically focus on landing 80% of the balls within 20 feet of the pin with your 8 iron. This focused effort is what researchers call “Deliberate Practice”. Practicing with a specific goal of getting better leads to longer retention and a deeper interpretation.

I’m somewhat good at this. I do try to practice things with specific goals in mind. My downfall? I get frustrated too quickly if things don’t go well, which puts me in danger of falling back to doing the easy thing instead of continuing to go after the specific thing I need to improve upon.

2) As you do the task, focus on what’s happening and why you’re doing it the way you are. Be aware of what you are doing. When you tune out and execute on auto-pilot, your neural pathways don’t form with the same energy or vigor as when you are focused and present.

Generally pretty good at this. If anything my downfall is to overthink things.

3) After the task, get feedback on your performance from multiple sources/angles. Make changes in your behavior as necessary. Most people avoid criticism and don’t seek feedback. Without direction and assessment, you “don’t get any better, and you stop caring.”

Not good at this. Hate to admit it, but I’m just not. I can’t even throw in a qualifier, except to say that I’m trying to get better about it. Maybe that’s why I’m doing this blog? Why am I doing this blog?

4) Continually build mental models of your situation – your industry, your company, your career. Enlarge the model to encompass more factors. Create pictures of “how the elements fit together and influence one another.” Grove, Gates, Rockefeller all had maps of their industries. Napoleon would identify and track the key elements from the battlefield in his mind.

I give myself high grades here. I have always tred to have a good feel about where I fit in within the scheme of things. Where I’m at, where I want to go, who are the people or companies that I’d like to be associated with, etc.

5) Do those steps regularly, not sporadically. Occasional practice does not work. Consistent practice is key or entropy sets in. Hogan used to say that if he missed a day or two of range practice, he would be set back a week.

This one’s hard to judge. I work every day, but that’s not exactly the same as hitting a bucket of balls. I guess if every day I’m cognizant of my behavior and try to pinpoint my actions to things that are likely to drive my success forward, that would be like consistent practice. Not sure how I rate myself. Probably a little better than average. I think a lot about what is the best way to spend my time and if there are ways I could be doing my work better. At the same time, sometimes work is just nose to the grindstone, and you barely have time to think.

I’m going to give myself a little extra credit, though. Having read about how to be great is actually like practicing to be greater, in that I’ll take those ideas forward with me and try to get even better. And writing this post about it will help, too, because I always remember things better if I’ve written them down; my brain seems to work that way.

So I’m on my way. Greatness here I come.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

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