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Peak Performance

“All children are born geniuses; 9,999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently degeniusized by grownups.”-Buckminster Fuller

In 1985, I was in Standard 7, or what would now be called Grade 9. I was at Greenside High school in Johannesburg and although I didn’t know it at the time, it would turn out to be a fairly significant year. After having done relatively well in mathematics during my primary school years, I now found myself in a situation where I was really struggling with the concepts being taught.

It is my understanding that the word Algebra is a Latin variant of an Arabic word that has its origins in around 825 Ad. Latin was a subject that I was doing particularly well at having achieved an A aggregate for two consecutive years. Knowing the origins of the word, however, did not help me at all in understanding the finer workings of the subject. I was absolutely clueless. It turns out, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My maths teacher was incapable of seeing the latent mathematical genius that lay deep, deep below the surface and in the spirit of true academic encouragement, suggested that I simply shelve maths entirely, because there was no chance that I would pass the subject in later years , where the work would be considerably more difficult.

She was of the opinion that you either clicked with maths or you didn’t. Some brains are just wired for maths and some aren’t and there was no shame in admitting that I was one of those individuals that would never get it, no matter how hard I tried. This mentality seems the norm for educators out there. A survey of British teachers who decide which students should receive musical instruction revealed that a full 75% believed that talent is innate and that children could not excel at music without these special innate gifts. This same belief is true of “intelligence”. Looking back now, I couldn’t have been that bad. In present day South Africa where the government’s standard for a pass is a lofty 33%, I would have been considered a near genius. Like many educators out there, I too have held this same belief for decades and in some ways it has impacted on how I see my children.

When my oldest son Paul was three he used to marvel at my mathematical mastery. He was flabbergasted at how quickly I could come up with a solution to 2×3 and other similar complex problems he was having to deal with at the time. Now that he is fifteen, he no longer has any such illusions. I keep wondering why he has not asked me to help him figure out any of his homework lately. The truth is, he quickly figured out that he was far more adept at solving those problems by himself. I have always believed that Paul has a natural aptitude for mathematics and for music in particular. It has always seemed that these were innate talents.

On the other side of the scale, I have also just assumed that my youngest child, Jade, who is currently ten years old, inherited my mathematical brain. She seems to battle with the mathematical concepts being presented at school and as a result despises math. She has, however, shown an interest and what seems to be a natural aptitude for writing and singing. Jade is one of those kids who doesn’t know how to walk and not sing and dance at the same time. She loves stories and has the most amazing ability to engage the right brain and describe scenarios with the greatest lucidity and creativity, an ability which seems to be advanced for her age.

Ethan, at twelve years old, is a bit of an enigma. We are still trying to work him out. He has of late shown an increased confidence at school and does relatively well in most areas. He has above average hand eye coordination, but doesn’t seem to stand out in anything. He loves being outdoors and seems happiest when he is in the bush, or on the beach.

It may seem that I have a fair grasp of what their individual abilities are, but is my thinking flawed and is it possible that the way I see them may be potentially stifling? Throughout the history of our species, we have always been enthralled at the tales of individuals with great natural talent. At the recent Olympics in London, we marvelled at the strength, skill, endurance, speed and agility of the athletes. We are inspired and in awe of the musical and artistic geniuses around us. If you consider greatness in any field of endeavour, it has always been associated with a “divine spark” of some sort, a gift from the Gods. Throughout time, we have been obsessed with explaining why some people succeed and others don’t. What is that distinguishing factor?. Is it nature or nurture – genetics or environment. Decades of research has been conducted in this area and the evidence points to the following two facts:

• The correlation between IQ and exceptional performance is rather frail in many areas, including chess, music and academia.
• The perception of “natural talent” or ability from an early age is no indication of later exceptional performance with many researchers referring to talent as a myth.

“In times of change, learners will inherit the earth, while the learned, will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” –Eric Hoffer

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.”–Benjamin Barber

This has got to be our starting point. The lenses through which we see the world influence everything from there on out. Our attitudes and behaviours flow from this and our success is directly impacted. Kids have an insatiable desire to keep learning, they are like sponges. They ask a million questions a day. It is during our early years that we develop the most important skills we will ever learn, like learning how to walk and how to talk. infants don’t care too much if they fall down while learning to walk, They just get up and try again. They are not afraid of humiliation or making mistakes and as a result just move forward. Kids will volunteer to play the lead role in plays and sing and dance spontaneously. Why does this enthusiasm so often stop? In her book “Mindset” – The new psychology of success, Carol Dweck, who is a Professor of psychology at Stanford university, explores two mindsets that will make or break performance. For twenty years her research has shown that the view we adopt for ourselves profoundly affects the life that we will live. It can determine whether or not we become the people we want to and whether we accomplish the things we value most. If we have what she refers to as a “fixed” mindset, believe that talent, ability, intelligence and personality are fixed and that they cannot be changed. They don’t believe that these things can be cultivated and developed over a life time. They have the same belief that I did – my mathematical ability was just an indication of how I was “wired”. Some people have it and some don’t.

The consequences of this mentality are that we are constantly trying to keep up appearances or to prove ourselves to others. We spend more time documenting our talent than developing it. If you have constantly been told that you are a “natural” you are under constant pressure to perform. Failure is seen as a lack of competence and is taken very personally. It is not seen as an event, but as an identity (I am a failure). For those individuals with a fixed mindset, it is important to look perfect and as a result, the tendency will always be to stick to what we know and what we seem to be good at. To do otherwise would be to risk our identity as “smart” or “talented”. When we have a fixed mentality the perception is that things must come easily and naturally without having to exert too much effort. As a result we rarely venture outside of our comfort zones and therefore rarely stretch ability.

Individuals with a growth mentality believe that their abilities, intelligence and abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication over a period of time. They are not stressed when things don’t work out. Obstacles and challenges are merely seen as opportunities to grow. These are individuals who take responsibility for what happens and have a clear picture of what they are trying to achieve. Regardless of how “smart” or “talented” they are perceived to be they understand that exceptional performance is only achieved through hard work over a period of time.

Every single great achiever will have encountered significant challenges in pursuit of their dreams and the likelihood is that we will too. If we interpret these challenges as evidence that we just don’t have a “natural gift” at what we are doing, we will give up and we will never achieve what we otherwise could have. Our mindsets form the foundation for any great endeavour.

One of the great myths attached to great achievement is that the more talented an individual is, the quicker that individual can achieve a level of expert performance. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State university and who is highly regarded as one of the world’s leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expert performance has done decades of research on what it takes to be world class in almost any domain.

The evidence indicates that it requires a minimum of at least ten years and the equivalent of at least 10 000 hours practice over that period of time for individuals to be considered an expert in their field. In their classic study of expertise in chess William Chase and Herbert Simon in 1973 observed that nobody had attained the level of Chess Grandmaster without spending at least a decade of intense preparation with the game.

The only exceptions of the twentieth century were Bobby Fischer and Salo Flohr who both achieved that ranking after a little more than nine years focussing intensely on their craft, but after having practiced more intensely during their formative years. These same findings have been correlated in a range of different fields including, tennis, music, mathematics, swimming and long distance running.

In fact, it takes most elite musicians between fifteen and twenty five years of steady practice on average, before they succeed at international level.

The key ingredient in achieving exceptional performance according to Ericsson is what he refers to as “deliberate practice”. The truth is that we can dedicate our lives to the pursuit of greatness in a particular field and that still won’t ensure a level of expert performance. It’s not in the time, but in the quality of the time spent practicing where the real key lies. Most social golfers , have as a goal to improve their handicap over a period of time and get really confused as to why progress doesn’t seem to happen despite many hours on the driving range and on the golf course.

I haven’t played golf in a while, but used to play off a sixteen handicap. That didn’t change much over a fairly long period. The most obvious reason is that I didn’t spend enough time practicing, but more importantly, the quality of my practice sessions made the time spent at the range largely pointless. I would typically hit a bucket of balls before playing a round and would start off with the shorter irons and gradually progress towards the longer irons and then haul out the big stick and try and hit it as far and as straight as possible. It’s no wonder progress was slow.
Gary Player, the great South African golfer has always spoken about the importance of “practice with a purpose”. In order for practice to lead to significant improvement, it must be designed for a particular purpose. He is known to be almost obsessive about practice and would practice for “several hours” every day in a bunker he had made at his home. He would set a particular goal for that session and would not quit until he had reached it. He shares a story of where he was practicing one late afternoon with the goal of holing five bunker shots. He was having friends over and when they arrived he had only holed four. His wife came out to call him in and he told her to go on and start without him, saying that he was not coming in until he had holed another shot. He would practice all sorts of different bunker shots from many different angles that all required different levels of feel. The shot that required a delicate flop out the bunker when there was no green to work with and the shot that required more roll because of a flag placement at the back of the green. This kind of practice is often mentally and physically exhausting and requires a great level of intensity and phenomenal powers of concentration.

The great cricketer Sir Donald Bradman is known to have spent hours as a child practicing his reaction skills by hitting a golf ball against a rounded water tank. He would throw the ball at the tank with his left hand and then grab a cricket stump, with a diameter of between 3.5 and 3.8 cm with both hands and then try and hit the golf ball as it ricocheted off the base of the tank at unpredictable angles. As you can imagine, after hundreds of hours of this kind of practice, his reaction times would have increased hugely and a red cricket ball would have seemed the size of a watermelon as it came off his cricket bat.

In most cases where individuals go on to achieve greatness the influence of other people during the journey has been significant. Parents have shown to play an important role in identifying perceived ability and interest levels and then schedule regular fun training sessions. There is also no doubt that the support from parents on the sidelines is huge. The greatest single influence always comes in the form of a coach or coaches with expert knowledge in the particular field and who can give regular feedback and recommendations for improvement based on the latest training methodologies current levels of skill and ability. Coaches also will stretch us beyond current comfort zones so that improvements are always made.

The role of coach is especially important in the initial stages until we can reach a level of being able to self assess and design specific routines around areas of improvement. The best tennis players on the planet still have full time coaches. The regular feedback and insights into the subtle nuances of a players game are invaluable from expert coaches that are trained in the art and science of their chosen field.
Ivan Galamian, arguably the most famous violin teacher of all time makes the point that deliberate practice does not happen by itself. “If we analyse the development of the well known artists, we see that in almost every case, the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher”.

When we surround ourselves with those individuals we aspire to be like, we accelerate our growth exponentially. Silicon valley in California became the creative hub for many of the most innovative and creative technologies of the last few decades. An energy and vibe is created when we associate ourselves with the best. As a motivational speaker, I am inspired by other speakers from the Professional speakers association. When I attend speaker conventions, I am always enriched by my colleagues. Joining an association in your field will spark creative ideas and provide increased motivation.

“Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark.” – Henri Frederic Amiel

There are very few human beings on the planet who are going to dedicate over a decade of their lives and tens of thousands of hours to a particular field without having great passion. It takes enormous amounts of self discipline and sacrifice to be in the pool for hours a day, or spend hours playing chess or crouching up and down and throwing our bodies around in pursuit of a red cricket ball. That kind of relentless practice is very often not fun. Speak to anybody who has achieved greatness through sweat and tears and they will more than likely tell you that they would not have changed a thing. The research shows that sixty seven percent of us are in jobs we don’t want to be in. That means that the likelihood of you being one of those individuals is not overwhelming. Does your work energise you. Do you look forward to going to “work”.

We can’t all stop what we are doing now and decide we want to become Olympic gold medallists or concert pianists, but imagine what we could accomplish with two hours of deliberate practice per day in our field. It’s not too late to start doing what we are passionate about – that thing within us that energises and inspires the very best in us.

My daughter Jade is not going to become an actuary or a statistician. She is just not interested and it wouldn’t provide a powerful enough motivator for her to want to invest the time pursuing the notion. She could absolutely develop a fair competence and understanding of figures though. She has over the last number of days written a couple of maths exams and has improved her aggregate by twenty percent on the first exam so far. The grade isn’t the important thing here. We are so much more than the sum of our grades. It’s more about the journey, the commitment to a life of learning and growing. Hopefully some important attitudes and behaviours can be learned by all going into the future

About the Author

Eddie Botes is a motivational speaker and trainer based in cape Town, South Africa. He is the founder of Leadershift, an organisation dedicated to inspiring and developing greatness in leaders, by providing world class training programs, entertaining and research packed presentations and state of the art profiling and assessment solutions.

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