Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Practice Sharpens Talent


It is you play at the level at which you practice. Consistently good practice leads to consistently good play. It sharpens your talent. Successful people understand this. They value practice and develop the discipline to do it. If you want to sum up what lifts most successful individuals above the crowd, you could do it with four little words: a little bit more. Successful people pay their dues and do all that is expected of them—plus a little bit more.

Looking for Success

In London, England, a young man sought to find his way in life. Only fifteen years old in 1827, young Charles possessed intelligence, ambition, and—he hoped—talent enough within himself to make his dreams for success a reality.
The boy grew up in a lower-middle-class family that had always struggled financially. His parents tended to spend a little more money than his father earned. And they had many mouths to feed, since the couple had eight children. As a result, they were continually borrowing money, putting off creditors, and moving from one place to another. In 1824, when his father was sent to debtors’ prison, twelve-year-old Charles was put to work gluing labels on bottles in a factory. He hated it.

Charles had gone to school for several years before his time in the factory, and when the family’s financial situation became less dire, he attended school again. He was a good student, but at age fifteen, with the family facing more hard times, he knew his school days were over. He was sent off to work, this time as a law clerk. At first he was glad to be doing tasks much different from those of his previous experience. In the factory, he had been among poor, illiterate boys doing dirty and tedious work. But it didn’t take long for his work in the law office to become tedious to him. After a year and a half apprenticing there, he switched legal firms, but it much better. After a few months, he resigned.
Unlike his parents, with whom he still lived, Charles had managed to save some money while working, so he decided to take his time figuring out what kind of work he wanted to do. He spent long hours in the reading room at the British Museum. A profession that interested him was journalism. Not only did it appeal to his love of literature, but it would require no further formal education or any kind of apprenticeship. His uncle was a reporter, and his father wrote occasional pieces as well. How could he achieve his goal? Through hard work and lots of practice. With the benefit of books from the museum and some coaching from his uncle, John Henry Barrow, Charles began teaching himself the Gurney system of shorthand writing. Because of his diligence, it didn’t take him long. Having “tamed the savage stenographic mystery,” he became a freelance court stenographer at age eighteen.

From Obscurity to Excellence

His choice surprised his family, and they did not believe he would be successful. “None of us guessed at it,” his father said, “and when we heard that he had become a reporter . . my brother-in-law Barrow . . and other relations anticipated a failure.” But he didn’t fail. He was so good that his uncle soon hired him as a staff member of the Mirror of Parliament and later gave him managerial duties. By the time he was twenty-one, he was considered to be “the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press.”
Charles felt good about his professional progress and he was earning money, but he desired more. He desired greater income and greater fulfillment. He decided to start doing another kind of writing—more creative works. He wanted to be more than just a reporter; he wanted to become an author. He began by writing “sketches” of people and places, drawing upon his experiences traveling throughout Britain as a reporter and upon his observations while taking long daily walks throughout London. When the first sketch, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was complete, Charles hoped to get it published, dropping it into “a dark letter box, in a dark office, up a dark court in Fleet Street with tear and trembling.” He was ecstatic when in December of 1833, his piece appeared in the Monthly Magazine. He was paid nothing for his effort, nor was his name included with his work. But that didn’t matter. He was developing his talent by practicing his craft. He was on his way to becoming a professional author.

Practicing His Craft

He wrote more sketches in his “spare” time. With the creation of each new piece, he sharpened his talent. For a year and a half, he wrote for no payment, receiving only recognition from editors and readers as his pieces were published. His work was gaining such attention that his employer, the Evening Chronicle, requested that he create sketches regularly for the magazine. He agreed to do it at no charge, but also suggested that he would welcome some extra money in addition to his regular pay. His employer raised his salary from five to seven guineas a week.
The first half dozen sketches he had written were published unsigned. Later, he used the pen name “Boz.” Over the next three years, he published sixty sketches in various magazines. Much to his surprise and delight, he was approached in 1836 by a young publisher who wanted to collect his writings into a volume along with ten prints from a well-known illustrator. It would be called Sketches by Boz. It was such a success that it went through four printings in its first year. It also earned him enough respect and recognition to be hired for another writing job: a collection of stories to be offered in monthly installments with illustrations. His years of practicing his craft by writing sketches were finally about to pay off. He knew he wanted to call this new work The Pickwick Papers, and he decided he would use his real name: Charles Dickens.

From Excellence to Fame

When we hear the name Charles Dickens today, most people think of long, old-fashioned novels that are required reading in English literature classes, But in his day, Charles Dickens’s works were as popular as today’s biggest hit television shows or movies. And there was no author in the entire world more popular than Dickens.
Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and biographer of Dickens, suggests that Dickens was “the first true celebrity of the popular arts—that is, a man whose work made him rich and widely famous. As close to a household name as any movie star is today” and the “first person to become a ‘name brand.”
Dickens is also considered by many to be the most talented author in England’s history—after Shakespeare. But before his fame, many people didn’t recognize his talent. Dickens biographer Fred Kaplan writes, “When he left his legal clerkship to attempt to be a reporter, his family thought he had aimed too high. When, in the next two years, he went from legal to parliamentary reporting, they expected a failure. Understandably, they were unprepared for the explosive release of energy and talent that transformed him in a three-year period into an internationally celebrated writer.” How did he transform that talent? He practiced his craft by writing those sketches. Kaplan says, “The sketches were a testing ground for an apprentice author whose talent enabled him to progress precociously.”
The idea for Dickens to write his first novel in installments was a good one. He went on to write all of them in that fashion. Most were published in monthly installments called monthly numbers. People bought and read each installment similar to the way we now tune in to our favorite television series. People who missed the novel as a series could buy a complete bound version once the series was finished—just as we can now purchase a complete season of a TV series on DVD.
The Pickwick Papers was Dickens’s first novel written in this fashion. The first monthly number sold fewer than 500 copies in April of 1836. However, Dickens kept fine-tuning the story and characters, and by the fourth “number,” sales were up to 4,000. That may not seem like much, but consider this. The novel as an art form was only 100 years old, and most novels sold an average of only 300 to 400 copies. And with each episode, Dickens’s sales continued growing. As the last few numbers came out, each sold a remarkable 40,000 copies. Dickens’s first novel was more successful than any other novel in history to that point. At age twenty-five, he achieved success as an author that was unmatched until the next century. Over the next twenty years, more than 1.6 million copies of Pickwick sold in one form or another.
Jane Smiley believes that Dickens’s first three major works— Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, and Oliver Twist—were examples of his practicing his craft to sharpen his talent. She writes,

Every novelist seeks . . to extend his range of expression …. .In his twenties, [Dickens] was not unlike other youthful authors. Even though he was a genius, he had artistic ambitions that he was not yet technically equipped to fulfill, and he used his first three books to write his way toward fulfilling them.

During his thirty-five-year career, Dickens wrote more than a dozen full-length novels (some of which are considered masterpieces), several travel books, and numerous Christmas stories. And all those years, he also edited various monthly magazines and traveled extensively giving readings of his work. He was probably the most popular author in Britain’s history. But as talented as he was, he didn’t start out at the top. Even a genius needs practice to sharpen his talent and reach his potential.

The Power of Practice

There’s a myth about highly talented people—it’s that they are simply born that way. But the truth is that no people reach their potential unless they are willing to practice their way there. Recently I was traveling with Tom Mullins, a former football coach who wrote The Leadership Game, which contains successful leadership principles he gleaned from interviewing eight college national champion football coaches. As I talked about the idea of practice with him, he nearly leaped out of his seat. When Tom talks about anything related to leadership, it’s like he’s back in the locker room talking to his team at halftime when they’re losing. I mean he gets excited!
“Let me tell you, John,” he said, “all the national champion coaches told me the key to going from good to great came in two areas: the preparation of the team and the practice of the players. They were forever upgrading their preparation and sharpening their practices.” That made sense to me because preparation positions talent and practice sharpens it.
Before we go any further, there are three things you need to know about practice:

1. Practice Enables Development
How do we grow and develop? Through practice. People refine old skills and acquire new ones through practice. That is where the tension between where we are and where we ought to be propels us forward.
Former pro basketball player and U.S. senator Bill Bradley says that he attended a summer basketball camp when he was fifteen years old. There former college and pro basketball star “Easy” Ed Macauley told him, “Just remember that if you’re not working at your game to the utmost of your ability, there will be someone out there somewhere with equal ability who will be working to the utmost of his ability. And one day you’ll play each other, and he’ll have the advantage.”
If you desire to improve and develop, then you must practice. It allows you to break your own records and outstrip what you did yesterday. Done correctly, practice keeps making you better than you were yesterday. If you don’t practice, you shortchange your potential.

2. Practice Leads to Discovery
In one of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips, Charlie Brown laments to his friend Linus, “Life is just too much for me. I’ve been confused from the day I was born. I think the whole trouble is that we’re thrown into life too fast. We’re not really prepared.”
“What did you want,” Linus responds, “a chance to warm up first?”
We may not get a chance to warm up before entering childhood, but we can warm up by practicing the many activities we pursue once life has begun. And it is often during these “warm-ups” that we learn able things about ourselves. If you commit yourself to practice, here are a few things you are likely to learn:
Practice both shows and builds commitment. The true test of commitment is action. If you say, for example, that you are committed to becoming a great dancer but you never practice, that’s not commitment. That’s not dance. That’s just talk. But when you follow through and practice, you show you very time you follow through, your commitment becomes stronger.
Your performance can always be improved. Consultant and author Harvey Mackay says, “A good leader understands that anything that has been done in a particular way for a given amount of time is being done wrong. Every single performance can be improved.” Since there always a better way, your job is to find it.
The “sharpening” process is better in the right environment. You can’t discover your abilities and improve your skills in an environment where you are not allowed to make mistakes. Improvement always requires some degree of failure. You must seek a practice area where experimentation and exploration are allowed.
You must be willing to start with small things. Human relations expert Dale Carnegie advised, “Don’t be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger. If you do little things well, the big ones tend to take care of themselves.” As you first start to practice, the gains you make may be small. But they will grow. They compound like interest. Swimming coach Daniel F. Chambliss says that great athletes pay attention to small details and practice them consistently. He observes, “Swimming is swimming, we can say—in practice, or in meets, it’s all the same. If you swim sloppily for 364 days a year, nothing great is going to happen on the day of that big meet, no matter how excited you get.”
Very small differences, consistently practiced, will produce results. A curious thing happens when you practice. At first the gains are small, as I said. Then they begin to grow. But there comes a time, if you persevere, when the gains become small again. However, at this season these small gains make big differences. In the Olympics, for example, the difference between the gold medalist and the athletes who finish without a medal is often just hundredths of a second.
There is a price to pay to reach the next level. One of the things you often learn in practice is what it will cost to reach a goal or go to the next level. As you get ready to practice, I recommend that you abide by the Taxicab Principle, which is something I learned traveling overseas: Before you get into the cab, find out how much the ride is going to cost. If you don’t, you may end up paying much more than the ride is worth! As you practice, keep in mind the words of screenwriter Sidney Howard, who remarked, “One half of knowing what you want is knowing what you must give up before you get it.”
Many people regard practice as an essentially negative experience. It doesn’t have to be that way. The best way to make practice exciting is to think of it in terms of discovery and development.

3. Practice Demands Discipline
One reason some people see practice as a grind is that it requires discipline. Even activities with intense physical demands also require lots of mental discipline. Bill McCartney, former national championship head football coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, used to tell me, “Mental preparation to physical preparation is four to one.”
Developing discipline always begins with a struggle. There is no easy way to become a disciplined person. It has nothing to do with talent or ability. It is a matter not of conditions, but of choice. But once the choice is made and practice becomes a habit, two things become obvious. The first is a separation between the person who practices and the one who doesn’t. Cyclist Lance Armstrong emphasizes that “success comes from training harder and digging deeper than others.” He would know, having won a record seven Tour de France championships. The second thing that emerges is a winning spirit. The harder you work, the harder it becomes to surrender.
Greek philosopher Aristotle observed, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” That habit is developed during practice.

The Five Pillars of Practice

I talked to a lot of leaders and coaches about practice while I was working on this chapter. And each one of them had a little different take on how to approach practice effectively. Warren Bottke is a PGA master professional who has helped thousands of amateurs and professionals improve their golf game. As Warren and I talked, we settled on five elements upon which great practice rests.

Pillar #1: An Excellent Teacher or Coach
One of my core beliefs is that everything rises and falls on leadership. I teach that truth to businesspeople all the time, but it also applies in other areas of life, including practice. People who perform at their peak practice effectively, and they practice effectively under the leadership of a great teacher.
Howard Hendricks, professor and chairman of the Center for Christian Leadership in Dallas, says, “Teaching is causing people to learn.” How do good coaches do that? In part, they inspire. But good teachers do more than that. They tailor their instruction to their students. A good teacher or coach, like all good leaders, knows the strengths and weaknesses of each person. He knows whether a person is a right-brain creative/intuitive type or a left-brain analytical type. He knows whether a person learns visually, verbally, or kinesthetically. And he can tell when someone needs a pat on the back or a kick in the pants.
When Dickens started in his career, his uncle coached him as a reporter. With practice, he became the best in England. As he began writing creative pieces, a few key editors gave him feedback and, more important in his case, encouraged him to keep doing that kind of writing. Because his talent was so great, Dickens quickly outpaced the ability of those who would coach him. But throughout his life, he remained connected with other professional writers from whom he could receive advice and feedback, people such as Thomas Carlyle, Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and John Forster.

Pillar #2: Your Best Effort
Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie declared, “There is no use whatever trying to help people who do not help themselves. You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing to climb himself.” People don’t improve and reach their potential without putting forth great effort. That’s why composer and orchestra leader Duke Ellington used to make a simple but demanding request of the musicians who played for him. “Just give me your best,” he asked. Ellington worked hard and expected the same from others, knowing that hard work would not kill anybody (although it does seem to scare some people half to death).
Joe Theismann, who currently works as an announcer for ESPN, quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to two Super Bowl appearances in 1983 and 1984. The team won the first time and lost the second time. Today he wears his Super Bowl winner’s ring and his “loser’s” ring as reminders of the importance of effort. Why? Because his two experiences couldn’t have been more different. During their championship season, Theismann was thrilled to be in the Super Bowl and gave his very best to win. But not the next year. About the next year, Theismann explained, “I was griping about the weather, my shoes, practice times, everything.” He clearly wasn’t giving his best effort. “The difference in those two rings,” said Theismann, “lies in applying oneself and not accepting anything but the best.”

Pillar #3: A Clear Purpose
PGA Golfer Warren Bottke says that when he works with a new client, the first thing he does is to establish the purpose of practice. That usually means identifying a specific goal for each practice session. But the overarching purpose of practice is always improvement leading to excellence.
Pepperdine University sociology professor Jon Johnston makes a distinction between excellence and mere success:

Success bases our worth on a comparison with others. Excellence gauges our value by measuring us against our own potential. Success grants its rewards to the few but is the dream of the multitudes. Excellence is available to all living beings but is accepted by the few. Success focuses its attention on the external—becoming the tastemaker for the insatiable appetites of the … consumer. Excellence beams its spotlight on the internal spirit . . Excellence cultivates principles and consistency.

As you practice, make excellence your target, and give your best to achieve it. Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels says, “Most people feel best about themselves when they have given their very best.” If excellence is your goal and you arrive at it, you will be satisfied even though you never achieve success.

Pillar #4: The Greatest Potential
Have you ever noticed that two people on the same team with the same coach can practice with equal focus, effort, and purpose and have very different results? It’s a fact that equal practice does not mean equal progress. I learned this fact when I was nine. By then I had been taking piano lessons for a couple of years. As 1 played, I thought to myself, I’m pretty good at this. But then one day I played at a piano recital, and it turned out to be a reality check. Elaine, a girl who had been taking piano lessons for only six months, played a more difficult piece than mine. How could she be so much better than I was so quickly? The answer is simple: her potential was much greater than mine. It didn’t matter how much focused effort I put into practicing the piano. I was never going to go as far as Elaine could. Music wasn’t one of my best gifts, I enjoyed playing, but I wasn’t going to achieve excellence in it.
A few years ago after I spoke on leadership for Chick-fil-A, someone asked me during a Q&A session how to develop future leaders. I believe that when I quickly answered, “Find potential leaders, people thought I was being flippant. But my point was that it’s much easier to train people in the area of their greatest potential. When I evaluate people’s potential, I ask two questions: (1) Can they? And (2) Will they? The answers to these questions reveal something about their ability and their attitude. If both are right, the potential for excellence is high.
When Charles Dickens began thinking about writing fiction, he was already the best reporter in England. He could have remained where he was and been at the top of his profession. But something inside him must have known that as good as he was, he was not in the area of his most remarkable strength. So he took the risk of shifting his focus in search of his greatest potential.
You need to do the same. And once you figure out where your greatest potential lies, then start to practice there. If you don’t, not only will you fail to increase your ability, but you’ll eventually lose some of the ability you started with. You see, having potential works exactly opposite from the way a savings account does. When you put your money in a savings account, as time goes by, your money compounds and grows. The longer you leave it untouched, the more it increases. But when it comes to potential, the longer you leave it untouched, the more it decreases. If you don’t tap into your talent, it wastes away.
One way that you can get the best from yourself is to set high standards for your greatest potential. Dianne Snedaker, cofounder and general partner of Wingspring, advises,

If you are interested in success, it’s easy to set your standards in terms of other people’s accomplishments and then let other people measure you by those standards. But the standards you set for yourself are always more important. They should be higher than the standards anyone else would set for you, because in the end you have to live with yourself, and judge yourself, and feel good about yourself. And the best way to do that is to live up to your highest potential. So set your standards high and keep them high, even if you think no one else is looking. Somebody out there will always notice, even if it’s just you.

You can tell that you’re not making the most of your potential when the standards set for you by others are higher than the ones you set for yourself. Anytime you require less of yourself than your boss, spouse, coach, or other involved person does, your potential will go untapped.

Pillar #5: The Right Resources
Even if you do many things right, including finding a good coach or mentor, focusing in your area of greatest potential, giving your best, and doing so with purpose, you can still fall short without the right resources. During World War II, General George Patton was one of the most talented and accomplished commanders for the Allied forces. He was innovative, focused, and fearless. He was a good strategist and tactician. And he possessed the tanks and men to strike boldly against the Nazis to help bring an end to the war. But one thing he often lacked: gasoline. Without fuel, his tanks were useless.
Resources are nothing more than tools you need to accomplish your purpose. Every human endeavor requires resources of some kind. To practice well, you need to be properly equipped.

TALENT + PRACTICE = A TALENT-PLUS PERSON PUTTING THE TALENT-PLUS FORMULA INTO ACTION

There is one more secret to successful practice that will help you to sharpen your talent, and I believe it elevates top achievers above everyone else. Dickens displayed it. So did Joe Namath, Rueben Martinez, Meriwether Lewis, and the other highly talented people whose stories I recount in this book. It’s summed up by the phrase “a little extra.” Here’s what I believe it takes for someone to become a talent-plus person in the area of practice:

1. A Little Extra Effort
Historian Charles Kendall Adams, who was president of Cornell University and later the University of Wisconsin, observed, “No one ever attains very eminent success by simply doing what is required of him; it is the amount of excellence of what is over and above the required that determines greatness.” All accomplishments begin with the willingness to try—and then some. The difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is the extra!
A little extra effort always gives a person an edge. Art Williams, the founder of Primerica Financial Services, once told me, “You beat fifty percent of the people in America by working hard; you beat forty percent by being a person of honesty and integrity and standing for something; and the last ten percent is a dog-fight in the free enterprise system.” If you want to win that dogfight, then do a little extra.

2. A Little Extra Time
Successful people practice harder and practice longer than unsuccessful people do. Success expert Peter Lowe, who has gleaned success secrets from hundreds of people who are at the top of their profession, says, “The most common trait I have found in all successful people is that they have conquered the temptation to give up.”
Giving a little extra time requires more than just perseverance. It requires patience. The Law of Process in my book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership says, “Leadership develops daily, not in a day.” That can be said of any talent we try to cultivate and improve.
As you work to give a little extra time to your efforts, it is wise to maintain a longer view of the process of improvement. Such a perspective really helps. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created the memorial to the American presidents at Mount Rushmore, was asked if he considered his work to be perfect. It’s said he replied, “Not today. The nose of Washington is an inch too long. It’s better that way, though. It will erode to be exactly right in 10,000 years.” Now that’s patience!

3. A Little Extra Help
Anybody who succeeds at anything does so with the help of others. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, used to keep a reminder of that in his office. It said, “If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he had help getting there.”
I know that in my professional pursuits, I’ve always needed help. And I’ve been fortunate that others were willing to give it to me. Early in my career in the 1970s, I contacted the top ten leaders in my field and offered them $100 to meet with me for thirty minutes so that I could ask them questions. Many granted my request, and (fortunately for my thin wallet at the time) most declined to accept the $100. And today, I still make it a point to meet with excellent leaders from whom I desire to learn.
When I think about the ways that people have helped me in all aspects of my life, I am humbled and grateful. Some have given me advice. Others have presented me with opportunities. And a few, like my wife, Margaret, have lavished unconditional love on me. I know I am a very fortunate man.

4. A Little Extra Change
A letter was returned to the post office. Handwritten on the envelope were the words, “He’s dead.” Through an oversight, the letter was inadvertently sent again to the same address. It was again returned to the post office with another handwritten message: “He’s still dead!”
Let’s face it. Most people are resistant to change. They desire improvement, but they resist changing their everyday routine. That’s a problem because, as leadership expert Max DePree says, “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” To sharpen your talent through practice, you need to do more than just be open to change. You need to pursue change—and you need to do it a little bit more than other achievers. Here’s what to look for and how to focus your energy to get the kinds of changes that will change you for the better:

· Don’t change just enough to get away from your problems— change enough to solve them.
· Don’t change your circumstances to improve your life—change yourself to improve your circumstances.
· Don’t do the same old things expecting to get difference results— get different results by doing something new.
· Don’t wait to see the light to change—start changing as soon as you feel the heat.
· Don’t see change as something hurtful that must be done—see it as something helpful that can be done.
· Don’t avoid paying the immediate price of change—if you do, you will pay the ultimate price of never improving.

Poet and philosopher Johann von Schiller wrote, “He who has done his best for his own time has lived for all times.” You can do your best only if you are continually seeking to embrace positive change.
When you have worked hard in practice to sharpen your talent and you begin to see results, please don’t think that it’s time to stop practicing. You never arrive at your potential—you can only continue to strive toward it. And that means continual practice.
Charles Swindoll’s friend William Johnson, who owns the Ritz-Carlton hotels, was pleased when the organization won the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award. When Swindoll congratulated him, Johnson quickly gave others the credit for the achievement. But he also said that it made him and others in the organization work even harder to earn the respect that came with the award. Johnson summed up his attitude: “Quality is a race with no finish line.” If you don’t strive for excellence, then you are soon settling for acceptable. The next step is mediocrity, and nobody pays for mediocre! If you want to reach your potential and remain a talent-plus person, you have to keep practicing with excellence.

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