Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything

Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything

I’ve been playing tennis for nearly five decades. I love the game and I hit the ball well, but I’m far from the player I wish I were.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past couple of weeks, because I’ve taken the opportunity, for the first time in many years, to play tennis nearly every day. My game has gotten progressively stronger. I’ve had a number of rapturous moments during which I’ve played like the player I long to be.
And almost certainly could be, even though I’m 58 years old. Until recently, I never believed that was possible. For most of my adult life, I’ve accepted the incredibly durable myth that some people are born with special talents and gifts, and that the potential to truly excel in any given pursuit is largely determined by our genetic inheritance.
During the past year, I’ve read no fewer than five books — and a raft of scientific research — which powerfully challenge that assumption (see below for a list). I’ve also written one, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, which lays out a guide, grounded in the science of high performance, to systematically building your capacity physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
We’ve found, in our work with executives at dozens of organizations, that it’s possible to build any given skill or capacity in the same systematic way we do a muscle: push past your comfort zone, and then rest. Aristotle Will Durant*, commenting on Aristotle, pointed out that the philosopher had it exactly right 2000 years ago: “We are what we repeatedly do.” By relying on highly specific practices, we’ve seen our clients dramatically improve skills ranging from empathy, to focus, to creativity, to summoning positive emotions, to deeply relaxing.
Like everyone who studies performance, I’m indebted to the extraordinary Anders Ericsson, arguably the world’s leading researcher into high performance. For more than two decades, Ericsson has been making the case that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work — something he calls “deliberate practice.” Numerous researchers now agree that 10,000 hours of such practice is the minimum necessary to achieve expertise in any complex domain.
That notion is wonderfully empowering. It suggests we have remarkable capacity to influence our own outcomes. But that’s also daunting. One of Ericsson’s central findings is that practice is not only the most important ingredient in achieving excellence, but also the most difficult and the least intrinsically enjoyable.
If you want to be really good at something, it’s going to involve relentlessly pushing past your comfort zone, as well as frustration, struggle, setbacks and failures. That’s true as long as you want to continue to improve, or even maintain a high level of excellence. The reward is that being really good at something you’ve earned through your own hard work can be immensely satisfying.
Here, then, are the six keys to achieving excellence we’ve found are most effective for our clients:
  1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
  2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.
  3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.
  4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.
  5. Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.
  6. Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcherRoy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to build rituals — specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.
I have practiced tennis deliberately over the years, but never for the several hours a day required to achieve a truly high level of excellence. What’s changed is that I don’t berate myself any longer for falling short. I know exactly what it would take to get to that level.
I’ve got too many other higher priorities to give tennis that attention right now. But I find it incredibly exciting to know that I’m still capable of getting far better at tennis — or at anything else — and so are you.
Here are the recent books on this subject:
* Thanks to commenter Rick Thomas for pointing out the misattribution.
Tony Schwartz is president and CEO of The Energy Project. He is the author of the June, 2010 HBR article, “The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less,” and coauthor, with Catherine McCarthy, of the 2007 HBR article, “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.” Tony is also the author of the new book “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance” (Free Press, 2010

Train Your Brain to Focus


Next time you are sitting in a meeting, take a look around. The odds are high that you will see your colleagues checking screens, texting, and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of ourprowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor.
Multitasking may help us check off more things on our to-do lists. But it also makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.
Over the past decade, advances in neuroimaging have been revealing more and more about how the brain works. Studies of adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) using the latest neuroimaging and cognitive testing [PDF] are showing us how the brain focuses, what impairs focus — and how easily the brain is distracted. This research comes at a time when attention deficits have spread far beyond those with ADHD to the rest of us working in an always-on world. The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions, making you more focused, creative, and productive.
Here are three ways you can start to improve your focus.
Tame your frenzy.
Frenzy is an emotional state, a feeling of being a little (or a lot) out of control. It is often underpinned by anxiety, sadness, anger, and related emotions. Emotions are processed by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure. It responds powerfully to negative emotions, which are regarded as signals of threat. Functional brain imaging has shown that activation of the amygdala by negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems or do other cognitive work. Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite — they improve the brain’s executive function, and so help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.
What can you do? Try to improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of a day. Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages. (Calculate your “positivity ratio” at www.positivityratio.com). You can tame negative emotional frenzy by exercising, meditating, and sleeping well. It also helps to notice your negative emotional patterns. Perhaps a coworker often annoys you with some minor habit or quirk, which triggers a downward spiral. Appreciate that such automatic responses may be overdone, take a few breaths, and let go of the irritation.
What can your team do? Start meetings on positive topics and some humor. The positive emotions this generates can improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.
Apply the brakes.
Your brain continuously scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a particular task. Distractions are always lurking: wayward thoughts, emotions, sounds, or interruptions. Fortunately, the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action, and even an instinctive emotion from derailing you and getting you off track.
What can you do? To prevent distractions from hijacking your focus, use the ABC method as your brain’s brake pedal. Become Aware of your options: you can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go. Breathedeeply and consider your options. Then Choose thoughtfully: Stop? or Go?
What can your team do? Try setting up one-hour distraction-free meetings. Everyone is expected to contribute and offer thoughtful and creative input, and no distractions (like laptops, tablets, cell phones, and other gadgets) are allowed.
Shift Sets.
While it’s great to be focused, sometimes you need to turn your attention to a new problem. Set-shifting refers to shifting all of your focus to a new task, and not leaving any behind on the last one. Sometimes it’s helpful to do this in order to give the brain a break and allow it to take on a new task.
What can you do? Before you turn your attention to a new task, shift your focus from your mind to your body. Go for a walk, climb stairs, do some deep breathing or stretches. Even if you aren’t aware of it, when you are doing this your brain continues working on your past tasks. Sometimes new ideas emerge during such physical breaks.
What can your team do? Schedule a five-minute break for every hour of meeting time, and encourage everyone to do something physical rather than run out to check email. By restoring the brain’s executive function, such breaks can lead to more and better ideas when you reconvene.
Organizing your mind, and your team members’ minds, will yield a solid payoff in the year ahead. Adding “high-quality focus” is a great place to start. Try holding a no-multitasking meeting and see what happens when everyone in the room gives their undivided attention. Have you ever tried this in your organization? If not, do you think it would fly?


11 Books Every Young Leader Must Read


by John Coleman 

Recently, I wrote that leaders should be readers. Reading has a host of benefits for those who wish to occupy positions of leadership and develop into more relaxed, empathetic, and well-rounded people. One of the most common follow-up questions was, “Ok, so what should I read?”
That’s a tough question. There are a number of wonderful reading lists out there. For those interested in engaging classic literature, Wikipedia has a list of “The 100 Best Books of All Time,”and Modern Library has picks for novels and nonfiction. Those interested in leadership might consult the syllabus for David Gergen’s leadership course (PDF) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government or the syllabus his colleague Ron Heifetz uses for his course on adaptive leadership (PDF).
But if I had to focus on a short list for young business leaders, I’d choose the 11 below. I’ve only included books I’ve actually read, and I tried to compile a list that includes history, literature, psychology, and how-to. Variety is important — novels can enhance empathy; social science and history can illuminate lessons from other times and fields that might be relevant to your own; and at the very least, reading broadly can make you a more interesting conversationalist. But I have tried to make all the choices directly relevant to young businesspeople interested in leadership.
Invariably, many people will think some of the choices are poor or that the list is incomplete, but I hope it can serve as a start for young business leaders looking for literature to help them chart their careers.
Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor’s Handbook. Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 A.D., Marcus Aurelius is considered one of history’s “philosopher kings,” and his Meditations were perhaps his most lasting legacy. Never meant to be published, Marcus’ writings on Stoicism, life, and leadership were the personal notes he used to make sense of the world. They remain a wonderful insight into the mind of a man who ruled history’s most revered empire at the age of 40 and provide remarkably practical advice for everyday life. This is the translation I’ve found most accessible.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived life in the Nazi concentration camps. Man’s Search for Meaning is really two books — one dedicated to recounting his frightening ordeal in the camps (interpreted through his eyes as a psychiatrist) and the other a treatise on his theory, logotherapy. His story alone is worth the read — a reminder of the depths and heights of human nature — and the central contention of logotherapy — that life is primarily about the search for meaning — has inspired leaders for generations.
Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full. Tom Wolfe founded the New Journalism school and was one of America’s most brilliant writers of nonfiction (books and essays like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) before he became one of her most notable novelists. Often better known for his portrait of 1980s New York,The Bonfire of the VanitiesA Man in Full is his novel about race, status, business, and a number of other topics in modern Atlanta. It was Wolfe’s attempt, as Michael Lewis noted, at “stuffing of the whole of contemporary America into a single, great, sprawling comic work of art.” It’s sure to inspire reflection in burgeoning leaders.
Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker. One of the first books I read upon graduating college, Liar’s Poker is acclaimed author Michael Lewis’ first book — a captivating story about his short-lived postcollegiate career as a bond salesman in the 1980s. Lewis has become perhaps the most notable chronicler of modern business, and Liar’s Poker is both a fascinating history of Wall Street (and the broader financial world) in the 1980s and a cautionary tale to ambitious young business leaders about the temptations, challenges, and disappointments (not to mention colorful characters) they may face in their careers.
Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. What does it take to make a great company, and what traits will young businesspeople need to lead them? Jim Collins introduced new rigor to the evaluation of business leadership in his instant classic Good to Great, with a research team reviewing “6,000 articles and generating 2,000 pages of interview transcripts.” The result is a systematic treatise on making a company great, with particularly interesting findings around what Collins calls “Level 5 Leadership” that have changed the face of modern business.
Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Persuasion is at the heart of business, where leaders must reach clients, customers, suppliers, and employees. Cialdini’s classic on the core principals of persuasion is a sterling example of the cross application of psychological principles to business life. Based on his personal experiences and interviews — with everyone from expert car salesmen to real estate salespeople — Cialdini’s book is riveting and, yes, persuasive. It serves as a great introduction to other works by modern writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt, who translate theories from the social and physical sciences into everyday life.
Richard Tedlow, Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built.Richard Tedlow taught one of my favorite business school classes, The Coming of Managerial Capitalism, and this book is something like a distillation of a few of the high points of that class.Giants of Enterprise chronicles the lives of some of the businesspeople — Carnegie, Ford, Eastman, Walton — who shaped the world we live in today. It’s a brief introduction to the figures and companies who built modern business for the young business leader seeking to shape the future.
Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Financial capital is at the heart of capitalism. Any young person aspiring to business leadership should understand the financial world we live in. Ferguson is one of our era’s preeminent popular historians, and The Ascent of Money traces the evolution of money and financial markets from the ancient world to the modern era. It’s an essential primer on the history and current state of finance.
Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Clay Christensen was recently ranked the world’s greatest business thinker by Thinkers50, and his breakout book was a thoughtful tome on innovation and “disruption” called The Innovator’s Dilemma. All of Christensen’s books are essential reads, but this is perhaps the most foundational for any young leader wondering how to drive business innovation and fight competitors constantly threatening to disrupt his or her business model with new technology.
Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s book represents the best in self-help. His advice — about prioritization, empathy, self-renewal, and other topics — is both insightful and practical. Seven Habits can be useful to the personal and professional development of anyone charting a career in business.
Bill George, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. A hallmark of next-generation business leaders is a focus on authenticity. Bill George has pioneered an approach to authentic leadership development articulated well in his second book, True North. George (who, full disclosure, I’ve coauthored with before) conducted more than 100 interviews with senior leaders in crafting the book, and offers advice for young leaders on knowing themselves and translating that knowledge into a personal set of principles for leadership.
So what are your picks? Aside from a list for “young business leaders,” are there others you’d propose?



An 18-Minute Plan for Managing Your Day


Yesterday started with the best of intentions. I walked into my office in the morning with a vague sense of what I wanted to accomplish. Then I sat down, turned on my computer, and checked my email. Two hours later, after fighting several fires, solving other people’s problems, and dealing with whatever happened to be thrown at me through my computer and phone, I could hardly remember what I had set out to accomplish when I first turned on my computer. I’d been ambushed. And I know better.
When I teach time management, I always start with the same question: How many of you have too much time and not enough to do in it? In ten years, no one has ever raised a hand.
That means we start every day knowing we’re not going to get it all done. So how we spend our time is a key strategic decision. That’s why it’s a good idea to create a to do list and an ignore list. The hardest attention to focus is our own.
But even with those lists, the challenge, as always, is execution. How can you stick to a plan when so many things threaten to derail it? How can you focus on a few important things when so many things require your attention?
We need a trick.
Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru, knows all about tricks; he’s famous for handcuffing himself and then swimming a mile or more while towing large boats filled with people. But he’s more than just a showman. He invented several exercise machines including the ones with pulleys and weight selectors in health clubs throughout the world. And his show, The Jack LaLanne Show, was the longest running television fitness program, on the air for 34 years.
But none of that is what impresses me. He has one trick that I believe is his real secret power.
Ritual.
At the age of 94, he still spends the first two hours of his day exercising. Ninety minutes lifting weights and 30 minutes swimming or walking. Every morning. He needs to do so to achieve his goals: on his 95th birthday he plans to swim from the coast of California to Santa Catalina Island, a distance of 20 miles. Also, as he is fond of saying, “I cannot afford to die. It will ruin my image.”
So he works, consistently and deliberately, toward his goals. He does the same things day in and day out. He cares about his fitness and he’s built it into his schedule.
Managing our time needs to become a ritual too. Not simply a list or a vague sense of our priorities. That’s not consistent or deliberate. It needs to be an ongoing process we follow no matter what to keep us focused on our priorities throughout the day.
I think we can do it in three steps that take less than 18 minutes over an eight-hour workday.

STEP 1 (5 Minutes) Set Plan for Day. 
Before turning on your computer, sit down with a blank piece of paper and decide what will make this day highly successful. What can you realistically accomplish that will further your goals and allow you to leave at the end of the day feeling like you’ve been productive and successful? Write those things down.
Now, most importantly, take your calendar and schedule those things into time slots, placing the hardest and most important items at the beginning of the day. And by the beginning of the day I mean, if possible, before even checking your email. If your entire list does not fit into your calendar, reprioritize your list. There is tremendous power in deciding when and where you are going to do something.
In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe a study in which a group of women agreed to do a breast self-exam during a period of 30 days. 100% of those who said where and when they were going to do it completed the exam. Only 53% of the others did.
In another study, drug addicts in withdrawal (can you find a more stressed-out population?) agreed to write an essay before 5 p.m. on a certain day. 80% of those who said when and where they would write the essay completed it. None of the others did.
If you want to get something done, decide when and where you’re going to do it. Otherwise, take it off your list.
STEP 2 (1 minute every hour) Refocus. Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour. When it rings, take a deep breath, look at your list and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour. Manage your day hour by hour. Don’t let the hours manage you.
STEP 3 (5 minutes) Review. Shut off your computer and review your day. What worked? Where did you focus? Where did you get distracted? What did you learn that will help you be more productive tomorrow?
The power of rituals is their predictability. You do the same thing in the same way over and over again. And so the outcome of a ritual is predictable too. If you choose your focus deliberately and wisely and consistently remind yourself of that focus, you will stay focused. It’s simple.
This particular ritual may not help you swim the English Channel while towing a cruise ship with your hands tied together. But it may just help you leave the office feeling productive and successful.
And, at the end of the day, isn’t that a higher priority?

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