Fortune Magazine: Understanding Greatness

I read a fabulous article on greatness the other day in Fortune magazine and I am going to encourage all of you to read it at Secrets of greatness: Practice and hard work bring success - October 30, 2006 .

The entire magazine is about excellence and people who have done great things. But this article in particular was fascinating. I have read similar articles researching this very phenomenon. What makes certain people great? Is it talent or practice? Is it something you are simply born with or can anyone become successful? For point of clarification here, I am not talking successful as in, “makes a decent amount of money, lives in a nice home and drives a nice car”. I’m talking household name successful. What makes a Michael Jordan, a Tiger Woods, and a Martha Stewart (Criminal record excluded)? How does one business: Microsoft, Apple, Wal-Mart…become great and another one file for bankruptcy?

I have always been fascinated with leadership, and for the businesses I believe the top executive plays a huge role. So what makes those leaders, those individuals better at business than others? What leads to greatness?

The article starts by looking at the ten year rule, reporting that 99% of the time case studies will show that the… bestselling author, computer guru, business tycoon, Olympic athlete—pick your favorite—had at minimum 10 years of dedicated practice (a.k.a. hard work) prior to becoming successful. It’s the difference between being good at something, and being great.

The rule even holds true in pop culture. Pick a celebrity, a rock star, an actress…Jennifer Lopez. She was acting in Selena…she was a back up dancer for Janet Jackson, she was a choreographer and dancer on In Living Color…all before she had her first album come out started making multimillion dollar movies and became the infamous j-lo. Go back even farther…she talks about taking dance lesson every day, being poor and never giving up on her dream. It all equals 10 plus years.

Another example is Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey. Suddenly he’s everywhere, adorning the covers of Cosmo and TV guide. Just say McDreamy and people know who you’re talking about. But his credits go back to 1985. Dempsey’s appeared in numerous TV movies, sitcoms and dramas (The Practice and Will & Grace), and even some popular films like Scream 3 (2000), and Sweet Home Alabama (2002). That’s ten plus years.

Even the young ones have paid their dues. Tiger Woods was a toddler when he started to play golf. Pop Stars Brittney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake were all paid entertainers before hitting puberty. Some will argue that it was their innate talent that allowed them to master their craft so early. But talent alone cannot be enough. If any one of these people had given up before the 10 year mark, they would not be famous. Those who do seem to sprout up out of no where…look ten years into the future…do you even remember their names? This is the difference between a one hit wonder, an average or good person getting their seven seconds of fame and true greatness.

The other good point the article makes is that time is not enough. Remember the old saying, “practice makes perfect,”? This is perhaps the most interesting of everything studies on greatness have found. People who achieve greatness, strive for continual improvement. This improvement can only be accomplished by what they call deliberate practice. That means very specific goals, repetition, and evaluation. It means constantly pushing yourself to do more than what you think you are capable of doing. It is the same mentality that you use in fitness training, which I use in the gym. You have a set number of workouts. If you miss one, you feel it. So you have to do it every day, three times a week…there has to be a schedule. You do cardio; you lift weights, all with specific and measurable goals in mind. If you never increase the intensity of your workouts, you never improve. If I can jog three miles a day but come to the gym and walk on the treadmill for 15 minutes, I might as well be sitting at home. The activity is great. It will keep you healthy; it will maintain your weight. But you won’t get faster or stronger doing that. You can’t train for a marathon that way.

This same practice can be applied to a variety of life’s tasks and can help you to continually improve in your career. I like that. It might take a very type A personality to stick to a regimen like this…but CEO, Athlete or Musician isn’t obsessive compulsive about their career? It’s the difference between good…and great.