The Surprising Truth About What it Takes to Excel

Mary manages a team of experienced people. Her philosophy: “I’m here to remove barriers —to jump in and support my team when they need it.”

John works on the team reporting to Mary. He likes working for her because she is supportive, caring and knowledgeable. Mary steps in to help John solve problems, prioritize efforts and navigate internal politics. Year after year, John gains experience. Maybe he even gets promotions. Unfortunately, he never truly excels at his work. And that leaves him feeling comfortable but frustrated. It’s hard to see younger, newer people on the team who perform as well as he does. So while he looks pretty engaged on the outside, he’s bored and empty on the inside.

All this can make you wonder, what is it that makes someone excel?

Well, contrary to what you might think, it’s not experience. Researchers from INSEAD business school and the U.S. Naval postgraduate school call this phenomenon “the experience trap.” They found that while companies typically value experience, on average, people “with experience did not produce high-caliber outcomes.”

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin speaks to this “experience trap” as well as research showing that excellence doesn’t come from natural abilities or intelligence either.

So, where does it come from?

As Colvin explains, excellence comes from the degree to which a person deliberately practices over long stretches of time. Research by Anders Ericsson confirms the value of deliberate practice, noting that “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

These findings have implications for people like Mary and John, as well as parents and anyone who knows that life would be more fulfilling if they were to reach their full potential.

What Does Deliberate Practice Look Like?

According to Colvin, deliberate practice is characterized by the following elements:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance.
  2. It’s often done with the help of a coach or teacher.
  3. It can be repeated over and over again.
  4. Feedback on results is continuously available.
  5. It’s highly demanding mentally, and it isn’t much fun.

Hitting a bucket of balls at the driving range is not deliberate practice. Mary asking John to rehearse his presentation before going into a meeting, and giving him specific coaching to speak more concisely than he naturally does—that’s helping John deliberately practice.

Noel Tichy of the University of Michigan business school (and former chief of GE’s well-regarded Crotonville management development center) explains that people have three performance zones: (1) comfort zone, (2) learning zone and (3) panic zone. Deliberate practice occurs in the learning zone. It’s uncomfortable and painful, but it is doable and healthy.

Like any kind of learning opportunity, deliberate practice is all about pushing yourself just beyond what you can currently do. Colvin also explains that deliberate practice should be integrated and connected to broad principles and frameworks. Without that context, feedback in particular is subjective and less memorable.

Getting Deliberate About Practice

So, if you’re John working for Mary, do you just have to wait for her to step up and push you to deliberately practice? Of course not. Colvin provides the following suggestions for regulating your own ongoing, deliberate practice:

  1. Set immediate short-term goals for what you’re going to do today, and make them process- rather than outcome-oriented goals. Focus on how you can improve a specific element of your work.
  2. Believe in yourself. According to Colvin, “the best performers go into their work with a powerful belief in what researchers call their self-efficacy— their ability to perform. They also believe strongly that all their work will pay off for them.”
  3. Observe yourself closely. Metacognition, which is thinking about your own thinking, is something top performers consistently do. Ask yourself questions during or after a meeting: Am I sounding defensive or collaborative? Am I elevating the conversation to align to strategic priorities? How well am I listening?
  4. Evaluate yourself in specifics. Colvin says, “Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or ok…Sometimes [great] performers compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare with the performance of competitors…The key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits
  5. Take total responsibility for your mistakes. Top performers relentlessly avoid a victim mentality. They are 100% owners and responsible for their own behavior.
  6. Build mental models and frameworks. As you grow, it’s critical that you categorize and synthesize what you’re learning. Frameworks allow you to, “hang your growing knowledge of your domain,” according to Colvin. And, “A mental model helps you distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information. Most important, a mental model enables you to project what will happen next.”

As the world gets more competitive and changes more rapidly, experience without deliberate practice is a death trap. You can’t afford to simply support the status quo. Mary sounds like a wonderful boss, but she probably isn’t going to get you or the organization to the next level.

What do you need to deliberately practice to become excellent? How can you help others get the deliberate practice they need?



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