Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sports Analogy Week Day 3 - to excel, you need deliberate practice

Becoming an expert is the subject of an article in the July-August Harvard Business Review by Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, Michael Prietula of Emory University and Edward Cokely of the Max Planck Institute (link, first page free). According to the authors, research shows that expertise is developed, not innate. Write Ericsson et al,

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.

This reminded me of Larry Bird. [By the way, being a Knicks fan, I hated Bird. But you had to respect him.] I recall a story that midway in his Celtic career, Bird, already an MVP, spent an entire summer playing left-handed, as a way to develop his skills using his weaker hand. By the time the season started, Bird was able to score around the basket easily with his left or right hand.

How much time does such practice take? Less than you'd think--though more time than many businesspeople feel they have to spare. The authors write:

...Most expert teachers and scientists set aside only a couple of hours a day, typically in the morning, for their most demanding mental activities, such as writing about new ideas. While this may seem like a relatively small investment, it is two hours a day more than most executives and managers devote to building their skills, since the majority of their time is consumed by meetings and day-to-day concerns.

Which is a chilling thought. We don't spend enough time working on things we don't know or can't do, and we're not really improving.

(Photo: a Larry Bird toy, shooting right-handed, from sgursozlu via stock.xchng)