On Becoming Great

I was inspired by Freakonomics’ How to Become Great at Just About Anything (Rebroadcast). One of the takeaways I learned was that the oft quoted 10,000 hour rule is out of context. You need a combination of deliberate and purposeful practice… and some measure of talent.

Excerpts from the podcast:

  • “Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals, and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance. It is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement.”
  • “Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities… Further thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.”
  • “When we encounter someone who does something extraordinarily well, is it because they are “insanely talented,” as Malcolm Gladwell puts it? Or is it because they had, yes, an adequate measure of baseline ability and then found a way to convert that ability into something extraordinary? And if it’s the latter, can that conversion process be reliably emulated? By people like you and me?”

On Talent

Never having considered myself an athlete, I didn’t think I had the tall, fast or coordinated genes that seemed to help my classmates be physical specimens of note. But I recently realized that:

1. Athletes come in all varieties, I mean, look at the Olympics. There are human machines of all sizes and shapes. Some people have huge tree trunks for legs, others are bulky up top, almost bursting out of their shirts, Hulk style, and then there are pixie-like delicacies sweating with the best of them.

2. I come from a family of very active folk. On my dad’s side, the aunts and uncles all participate in something: my aunt competes in international badminton championships and my grandmother, despite her failing body, insists on walking daily, going miles slower than my 18 month old niece, but still moving. This is to say nothing of my my mother, who is one of the most energetic mothers I know; she bikes, runs, works out or walks daily.

I enjoy an active lifestyle, some would say I am a fanatic, and one friend goes as far as to say I have an athlete’s body (being slender and tone). But I had to learn to like/discover sports. It wasn’t something I ever considered myself talented or good at.

So maybe a combination of good examples and an inherited level of high energy have contributed to a penchant for physical activity. I, personally, feel that deliberate practice is a huge factor in my current level of abilities.

On Practice 

I quickly estimated the rough number of hours I have spent in the pool as a working adult, and it came to 945 hours. So nowhere near being an expert. My flip turns are horrendous and I’m currently honing my butterfly stroke (I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time!!) and breast stroke (pull, kick, gliiiide).

My first coach told me that if I wanted to become a stronger swimmer, I’d have to swim three to four times a week, as opposed to two. I started doing that. I got advice and feedback and my fellow swimmers pushed me. And… I got better. I no longer swim with a coach, but my fellow swimmers help me with technique, and they push me just as hard as my old coaches.

Am I better swimmer, after all those hours of swimming? Most definitely. Do I have room to improve? You bet I do. Could I have gotten to where I am today on my own? Nope. I would have missed out on technique feedback and motivation from my peers. I’d still be in the medium lane. Is my goal to become an Olympian? No, it’s too late for that, and my goal isn’t be the best. My goal is to maintain my current level of fitness and be able to finish (and not in last place) an open water swim or a triathlon. I don’t need to finish first, as I know I’m not the fastest, but I could probably compare my race times and see a marked improvement from my early days.

So, I don’t know if I’m GREAT at swimming, or any of the triathlon disciplines, really, but I could always improve. And the podcast motivated me enough to get my butt on the indoor trainer and try a new workout.

Do you considered yourself great at something? How did you get to that level? How can one become great at something?



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