The attainment of excellence is a common goal among growth-oriented people. To have the ability to perform a skill at a much higher level than others is alluring.
The skill can be anything: Knitting, running, content marketing, theoretical physics. Too often, though, we leave excellence at the “that would be nice” stage instead of truly pursuing it.
First of all, it’s not easy. But much of the reluctance to even try comes from lingering beliefs about innate ability that just aren’t supported by the evidence.
In other words, it’s the talent issue. Are people who attain excellence simply born that way?
Take the example of Mozart. The fact that he composed his first symphony at the age of nine, and his first opera at age twelve, seems so out of range for almost all children. And yet, Mozart got there just like others do; he just started really early.
We like to believe that a prodigy like Mozart was simply born differently than others. And while he and other child prodigies may have physical or emotional characteristics that match up well with certain areas of interest, no one is simply born a “great” anything.
Research dating back decades reveals that learning is more important than biology for the attainment of extraordinary skills. Even child prodigies learn their skills much the same as “ordinary” people do; they just start earlier and work harder.
Another argument against “being born with it” is that the pinnacle of excellence for one generation is usually surpassed by later efforts. The four-minute mile was once considered impossible. Once Roger Bannister did it, however, another man accomplished the feat only two months later, and now it happens routinely.
Going back to music, the standard repertoire for classical musicians today regularly includes pieces that were considered unplayable when composed in the 19th century. Similar escalations of the pinnacle of excellence are common in mathematics, sports, engineering, and just about any other area of interest you can imagine.
So what does it take to successfully pursue and attain excellence? Research reveals some common elements.
Three Key Aspects of Excellence
Attaining a level of superior skill at anything is learned. The question then shifts to, how does one learn at that high of a level?
The first element is the acquisition of a large knowledge base in the area of expertise. Experts and high performers invariably have a level of curiosity and the drive to know even the smallest details of their specific domain. Once they have the knowledge set, they can then tap into well-organized cognitive schemas that allows for performance that can appear intuitive or innate.
Next up is a high level of commitment. Those who attain excellence are absolutely determined to continually improve, and therefore persevere when things get tough. In this sense, the knowledge and specific expertise required to develop excellence at a skill is unique only to those who have the same level of commitment.
Finally, there’s practice, and lots of it. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the research that shows it takes an average of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve excellence. Regardless of the actual number, top performers begin practicing earlier than others, practice more, and practice more consistently.
Taken together, these three aspects come together not just in practice, but deliberate practice. This means a form of sustained practice that is focused, planned, concentrated, and effortful. Your attention is on only what you’re doing correctly, and incorrectly, at every moment.
That’s not easy. And you won’t be able to pull it off if you’re lacking in knowledge, commitment, practice time, and consistency. But there’s another key element that is absolutely essential.
You are the Key Asset
If you’re trying to become a top performer in an athletic sense, naturally you’ll have to be in top physical shape, mindful of your nutrition intake, and properly balance training with rest.
But it’s just as important even if your pursuit is musical, or entrepreneurial, or academic. Studies abound linking higher mental performance with elevated levels of fitness. So it stands to reason that you may fail to achieve the pinnacle of your chosen skill if you are not otherwise your best self.
Pursuing excellence is a form of essentialism, as defined by the book of the same name by Greg McKeown. It basically means eliminating all that is unessential from your life so you can apply deliberate focus and practice to what you decide is essential.
Interestingly, McKeown dedicates an entire chapter of the book to sleep, and refers to it as “protecting the asset,” by which he means protecting yourself. His key point:
- The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves. If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies, and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution. One of the most common ways people — especially ambitious, successful people — damage this asset is through a lack of sleep.
His argument is compelling. Recent news about the sleep deprivation epidemic is downright disturbing.
According to a Harvard Business Review article entitled Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer, many sleep-deprived employees are showing up to work with the mental capacity of someone who is legally drunk. And just about every system in our body is severely impacted when we don’t sleep well for extended periods of time.
Here’s the real kicker, though. Let’s revisit the time commitment to deliberate practice that’s required to achieve excellence.
The original study that revealed the “10,000 Hour Rule” that Gladwell popularized was K. Anders Ericsson’s examination of premier violinists. And in fact, the single most important factor for superior performance as a violinist was a sufficient amount of deliberate practice.
The second most important factor from the same study? Sleep.
The best violinists slept an average of 8.6 hours a day, which is about an hour longer than the average American. But somehow, all we ever heard about was the 10,000 hours, which might suggest to some that pushing it a little harder to the detriment of your sleep is the way to make it happen.
Pursuing excellence at a skill you intrinsically want to become a top performer at is not about killing yourself in the process. It’s about preserving the asset that someday will exemplify that excellence.
Keep going. But get some sleep.