Practice Makes…Really, Really Good

Recently I was reading about what it takes to become an expert….also, about what differentiates a good performer and an exceptional performer. In a previous post, I mentioned the estimate that it takes about 10,000 hours, or about 3.5 hrs a day over 10 yes, to become an expert.

There was another difference mentioned in Resnak’s book, that exceptional performers will practice things they are already good at. He describes a few cases from different areas (sports, music) and notes that these top-performers resist anything in their performance becoming “automatic.” One example is Michael Jordan practicing ball-handling! Resnak argues that this focus on very small parts of the performance, continual practice and improvement, and never taking anything as good enough, is what makes the difference between good and great.

As a performance consultant, I had to think about that. Much of what we do is to simplify the performance. Strangely, that usually requires looking closely at the performance to find the specific skills or criteria needed as opposed to just trying to think about everything. The focus for a new learner would naturally be different from the experienced professional. But often, if we are working with experienced performers, we hear the master performers and managers advocate “getting back to the fundamentals” while the bulk of the audience wants to move on past that point.


  1. Is it realistic, is it worthwhile, to force performers to drill on the fundamentals? If so, how do you get them to do it?
  2. The “greats” are few and far between. What can we do to spread or reinforce that drive to achieve excellence to a larger number of employees? Or, is the drive to become great only internal to the individual performer? (Or, is it so much a part of the individual’s personality that it is either too late or inappropriate to select it as a target for improvement by management or training events?)

My initial thoughts about both questions are that if you want to focus on the fundamentals, they need to be part of the culture and reinforced by both the formal and informal leadership. If Michael Jordan is practicing ball-handling, chances are, the other players will feel OK about it too.

Another aspect is rewards. In professional sports, there are huge rewards for being the best. Performance is tracked, measured, and analyzed constantly. Most employees really aren’t trying to be great…they just want to to their jobs. And employees can be brilliant or average and still end up with only a limited percent increase in pay (if any). So, if management wants people to put in the effort, they have to do some thinking about how they can identify and reward their top performers besides pay raises and bonuses. The good news is that, in many cases, financial rewards for performance are not really very effective…they are good for short-term improvement but less so for long-term.

So the other piece of good news is that energy, attitude, and ideas are pretty much free. They are out there. Those that try harder can become the best…if they really want to do the work.

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