Practicing for Peak Performance

Posted 10.20.2008

Peak performance Greetings from Chicago.  I’m here to keynote the Human Resources Planning Society Fall Executive Forum on the topic of ensuring the success of leaders moving to the next level.  The speaker last night was Jim Citrin of executive search firm Spencer Stuart.  Among other things, Jim talked about research he’s done on high performers that suggests it takes at least 10 years of consistent effort to become a master of any discipline.

Since this was at least the third time I’d heard this idea in the past three days, I took this as a sign to put up a post about it.  In the current issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell excerpts his forthcoming book, Outliers, to tell the story of Ben Fountain, an author who seemingly came out of nowhere in 2006 when his novel, Brief Encounters, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.  The back story on Fountain was that he started his career as a real estate lawyer who 18 years ago took up writing full time.  As Gladwell explains, Fountain put himself on a schedule of writing each morning at his kitchen table from 7:30 am to noon.  After a break, he’d go back to writing in the afternoon.

Last night, Citrin described the story of former U.S. Senator and former New York Knick Bill Bradley.  Bradley wasn’t the best athlete on the court but he made himself an NBA All-Star through hard work.  After each team practice session ended, Bradley would stay on his own and shoot until he made 25 baskets in a row from five different spots on the court.  If he missed on shot 23, he’d go back and start over.  Some days it took him three hours to meet his 5 x 25 goal.

Citrin also mentioned a new book on the topic of peak performance, Talent is Overrated, by Fortune editor Geoff Colvin.  His study of top performers cites the importance of practice and adds other factors such as a rich mental model, perspective and coaching.

What do you think?  Is talent overrated?  What have you found it takes to bring out the best in yourself or others?