Want to be a genius? Just practise

  • Business
  • Saturday, 14 Feb 2009

WHAT do The Beatles, Warren Buffett, David Beckham, Mokhtar Dahari and Bill Gates have in common? They’re all famous, they’re all gifted, and they’re all geniuses in their own realms. More importantly, they have all reached the top by doing one thing – they poured their hearts and souls, their blood, sweat and tears, into achieving “perfection” through lots of practice.

Thomas Alva Edison once said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Based on their research, Anders Ericsson and a team of scientists claim to know just how much perspiration is required to become a genius – apparently 10 years or 10,000 hours.

Ericsson writes, “A lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.”

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reinforces this point with evidence that geniuses simply become great through practice.

The Beatles remain the best-selling musical group of all time, but this success did not come overnight. Gladwell explains that the Beatles became so good because they played for hours and hours in the German underground scene in Hamburg, receiving little money or recognition.

According to John Lennon, they played eight hours per night, seven nights a week for 270 nights. In comparison, most bands of their time (and probably even now!) only performed one-hour sessions every week.

Fortunately for the Fab Four, by the time they were ‘discovered’, they had performed an estimated of 1,200 times! Most bands today don’t even perform that many times in their entire careers. These 1,200 live practice performances really was the differentiator.

Buffett is widely recognised as the world’s greatest investor. But his success is the result of sheer discipline, hard work and lots of practice. He practised the discipline of “mental strategies” of investment for years and years, and became an expert in investments over time.

Beckham is no different. Famed for his lethal free kicks, he wasn’t born with those skills. He practised free kicks diligently to impress his dad at first and developed it into his trademark.

Said his former boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, “He practised with a discipline to achieve an accuracy that other players wouldn’t care about.” After the usual practice session, Beckham would stay back and continue practising and practising – 500 free kicks a day, 180,000 free kicks a year.

That effort soon translated into an ability and talent that we called genius.

We know that Gates, a Harvard dropout, is among the world’s richest men because of his Microsoft fortune. But there is more to his story than meets the eye.

For starters, he went to an elite high school, with access to a computer. This was back in the 1960s, when many universities didn’t even have computers. This allowed him to do real-time programming as a 14-year-old.

Obsessed, he programmed eight hours a day, seven days a week. He skipped athletics, sneaked out after bedtime, hacked passwords, and told the occasional lie, just so that he could have more hours of programming. By the time he dropped out of college, he had 10,000 programming hours under his belt.

Think of teenagers who are computer whiz-kids. How do they become experts? With their short attention span, how do they learn? Observe them for a day and you will see them surfing the Internet, playing video games, and sharing everything they learn on blogs and YouTube.

Considering the hours they spend daily on the computer, it’s no wonder that they are so good with all things digital. Clearly, there is a correlation between time and expertise.

Greatness is only achieved through hard, painful, and demanding practice. “It can take 10 years or 10,000 hours of extensive practice to excel in anything,” says George Kohlrieser, the head of leadership at business school IMD.

“Mozart was six when he started composing, but his world-class compositions started at age 21.” Kohlrieser believes that talent and luck are important, but it is practice that makes the difference between being good and being great. So what does this all mean? We live in a world where we expect everything to be instantaneous. Maggi Mee, instant coffee, instant profits, and we even produce leaders by using the 1-Minute Manager manual.

Yet, to be truly exceptional and great, we need to put in the time. We expect world-class football players in Malaysia, and yet we start formal football training for kids at age 12, when teams like Everton start developing their Wayne Rooneys at age 4. And we wonder why we don’t see football geniuses?

There are no shortcuts. We can conclude likewise on leadership. Nobody becomes a great leader without working at it. To develop leaders, we need to provide our future leaders with early exposure and practice to leadership, possibly even in their schooling years. Why aren’t there leadership clubs in our schools that enable our kids to practice leadership?

There is a belief that if you’re good at something, it should be effortless. That unfortunately is baseless. To become a great leader, you need to notch up hours of practise. Even Jack Welch spent 10 years as CEO of General Electric, practising and practising before he finally got it right.

If you do the math, just three hours a day of practice for 10 years makes you an expert.

Just one problem: How do you practice business? Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering financial statements – you can practise them all. And even the softer pieces of management, such as giving feedback on performance, coaching your reports and hiring the right people can all be practised.

I played football under the great Mokhtar Dahari. He was an intense coach, always pushing us to the limit during our training sessions. One day I asked him about the goal he scored against England. He replied, “I guess I was just lucky.” Then he said, “But, Roshan, you make your own luck. The more you practise, the luckier you get. So stop asking questions and keep practising.” I took his advice and before long, I broke into the state team.

Roberto Galeotti, president of Scoula Superiore, once said, “Genius is NOT reserved for the special few”. Then again, practice is never easy. If achieving great performance was so easy, it wouldn’t be rare. So, you want to be brilliant or a genius, just practice la. Hopefully, you have 10,000 hours to spare!

·Roshan Thiran believes there is a science to developing leaders. He leads Leaderonomics, a social enterprise focused on developing leaders, especially amongst the youth. He spent the past 15 years working for General Electric and Johnson & Johnson across the globe.

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