How does one become an elite performer or successful at work? According to the Greater Good Science Center,
Angela Duckworth, the celebrated psychologist who first defined “grit” as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, has a theory about success. Instead of seeing achievement as simply a byproduct of IQ or intelligence or innate talent, Duckworth sees achievement as the product of skill and effort (Achievement = Skill x Effort) in the same way that we understand that Distance = Speed x Time.
…Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero. Researchers across diverse fields have produced remarkably consistent findings that back up Duckworth’s theory. They find that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being merely good at something to being truly great.
This is hard for most of us to believe, but K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and author of several landmark studies on this topic, has shown that even most physical advantages (like athletes who have larger hearts or more fast-twitch muscle fibers or more flexible joints—the things that seem the most undeniably genetic) are, in fact, the result of certain types of effort…Even super-skills, like “perfect pitch” in eminent musicians, have been shown to stem from training more than inborn talent. Hard to believe, but entirely true.
…People who rise to greatness tend to have three things in common: 1) They both practice and rest deliberately over time; 2) Their practice is fueled by passion and intrinsic interest; and 3) They wrestle adversity into success.
Elite performers “spend hours upon hours in “deliberate practice.” This isn’t just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives—say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond their reach. In the beginning, they may practice a new phrase or even a single measure again and again and again. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t always pleasurable—far from it. In fact, it is the elite performer’s willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes people who are good at their chosen activity from those who are the very best at it.” They “also practice consistently over a pretty long period of time.”
Proper rest is also extremely important. “In his studies of truly great performers, K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist and author of several landmark studies on elite performance…found that they practiced and rested a lot more than their good but not elite peers. For example, violinists destined to become professional soloists practiced an average of 3.5 hours per day, typically in three separate sessions of 60-90 minutes each. Good but not great performers, in contrast, typically practiced an average of 1.4 hours per day, with no deliberate rest breaking up their practice session…The top violins [also] slept an hour a night more than their less-accomplished classmates. They were also far more likely to take a nap between practice sessions—nearly three hours of napping a week.” It turns out that top achievers “sleep significantly more than the average American. On average, Americans get only 6.5 hours of sleep per night. (Even though studies show that 95 percent of the population needs between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.) Elite performers tend to get 8.6 hours of sleep a night; elite athletes need even more sleep. One study showed that when Stanford swimmers increased their sleep time to 10 hours a night, they felt happier, more energetic—and their performance in the pool improved dramatically.”
Failure is also a part of success. “Elite performers turn adversity into success. Most greats don’t just pile up one achievement after the next. Failure is a key part of growth and, eventually, elite performance”:
Failure—and adversity in general—is life’s great teacher. While there might not be anything good in misfortune, as Viktor Frankl wisely reminds us, it is often possible to wrench something good out of misfortune. We know that adverse life-events—a plane crash, a terrorist bombing, breast cancer—can trigger depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress syndrome. But what most of us don’t realize is that posttraumatic growth, as researchers call it, can also awaken us to new strength and wisdom. Misfortune—even tragedy—has the potential to give our lives new meaning and a new sense of purpose, and in this way, adversity also contributes to the passion part of the grit equation.
Finally, a five-year study of nearly 5,000 managers and employees in the U.S. finds five major strategies for work success and well-being:
- “intensely focusing on few tasks.”
- “prioritize work that [you] can do well, efficiently, and with great benefit to others.”
- “engage in collaboration only when it ma[kes] good business sense and when working together [i]s a benefit rather than a hassle.”
- “success requires the support of others, and the best way to garner that support is to speak to people’s values, interests, and motivations.”
- combine passion “with a sense of purpose.”
Try testing out these formulas in your own life.