In his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler talks about the leaps and bounds extreme sports athletes have made in the last few decades. Tony Hawk’s 900 (two and a half spins) on a skateboard used to be the pinnacle of achievement in the halfpipe best trick competition.
Hawk first landed this trick in August of 1999. Since then, there have been 15 different people to land the same trick. The invention of the MegaRamp in 2002 gave life to the 1080 (three complete rotations). Tom Schaar landed this trick on his fifth attempt back in March of 2012.
Obviously, these individuals have mastered their sports. Even more examples occur in other fields regarding backcountry skiing leading to BASE skiing venturing into wingsuits where humans fly through the air as if they were flying squirrels.
Studies have been done exploring this idea of mastery and what it takes for an individual to achieve such levels of performance. The three most dominant stances on expert performance are mothers, musicians, and marshmallows. What do these mean? Let’s explore:
University of Chicago educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom performed a study of 120 people under the age of 35 to answer the question, “Where does prodigious talent come from, special individuals or special circumstances?” Bloom hypothesized that talent was innate and these individuals were identified early then encouraged.
The data told a different story. No young geniuses were playing difficult concertos or solving impossible problems. Instead, Bloom found encouragement and a lot of it. A parent or relative would reward talent and ignore or punish the opposite. As Bloom described, “We were looking for exceptional kids, but what we found were exceptional conditions.”
This finding meant the right environment matched with encouragement provides the ability for anybody to be great. In other words, ‘mothers’ matter. The term ‘mother’ is applied to any supportive individual on someone’s path to greatness. It does not directly relate to biology.
Mentorship is a great way to ‘mother’ somebody or have someone you look up to as well. A simple check in on how the day is going or if someone needs help can be all the nurturing necessary for someone to go that extra mile.
I remember a day when the office manager asked me how I was doing. An ordinary question everyone gets asked in passing. What made this stand out was the sincerity in her voice wanting actually to know how I was doing. That honest question with a level of empathy made me want to help her whenever possible with no questions asked.
Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson performed a study surveying elite violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music. Ericsson found that not only is early environment helpful but also the number of hours put into ‘deliberate, well-structured practice.’ Ericsson defines this practice as, “focused, programmatic, carried out over extended periods of time, guided by conscious performance monitoring, evaluated by analyses of level of expertise reached, identification of errors, and procedures directed at eliminating those errors.”
In this study, all individuals who were observed are talented. They were accepted into a fantastic music academy with a thorough application process. Separation occurred because some individuals put in the work while others rested on their given talent. This work was not any kind. It was specific practice, and the fast raisers worked much, much harder.
10,000 hours is the magic number. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, expresses 10,000 hours as the target goal for mastery of a given activity. Remember, all hours are not created equal. ‘Deliberate, well-structured’ should be emphasized while practicing. Showing up, going through the motions, then leaving right as practice is over does not constitute the kind of practice necessary for mastery.
The adage ‘practice makes perfect’ should be revised to ‘perfect practice makes perfect.’
Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel performed a study on delayed gratification involving marshmallows. He would give 4-year old children an option: eat the marshmallow immediately, or if they waited for him to run a short errand, the child would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Most children could not resist the temptation and ate the marshmallow immediately.
However, the patient few turned out to be significant. 14 years later, these individuals were interviewed. It turns out the more patient children resulted in being more ‘self-confident, hard-working, and self-reliant.’ Also, the resisting children scored 210 points higher on their SATs.
That difference may not seem significant, but psychologist Philip Zimbardo explains it this way, “[the difference] is as large as the average difference recorded between the abilities of economically advantaged and disadvantaged children. It is larger than the difference between the abilities of children from families who parents have graduate degrees and children whose parents did not finish high school. The ability to delay gratification at four is twice as good a predictor of later SAT scores as IQ. Poor impulse control is also a better predictor of juvenile delinquency than IQ.”
These dominant viewpoints on mastery do have exceptions. Extreme action and adventure athletes do not fit any of these molds yet present excellent cases of mastery. Encouragement from individuals at home was not prominent, ‘deliberate, well-structured’ practice was not necessary, and immediate gratification kept them going.
Studying the outliers may give individuals a better indication of what is possible without having the perfect conditions as described in those studies. Not having support was used as fuel rather than an excuse. Playing around and being creative replaced structure yet resulted in next level performances. Instant feedback gave these athletes the knowledge to know right from wrong and continue their attempts at something never before seen.
This extreme athlete style may not work for you. If that is the case, try to implement one of the three other approaches to your team. Whether you use mothers, musicians, marshmallows, or extreme athletes, mastery remains the goal.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Over the past 10 years, Chris Cook has spent his career in the construction industry. He has a Bachelor's of Science in Industrial Technology Management with an emphasis in Building Construction Management and Master's of Science in Project Management. He is an accredited PMP.
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