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Natural Talent vs Effective Practice

Much of what we have been led to believe until now about ‘natural talent’ is now being shown to be untrue.  In his best-selling book ‘Bounce’, Matthew Syed explains that what has been labelled as natural talent is actually a function of consistent, long-term practice.

Dan Carter, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and other ‘naturally gifted’ individuals have actually become expert in what they do through application; hard work; regular feedback; and the desire to push themselves to greater levels of performance through effective and challenging practice.

Syed gives an example of the Japanese skater Shizuka Arakawa (one of the greatest skaters of all time) who fell over more than 20,000 times in her progression from a five year old beginner to becoming the 2006 Olympic champion.  The point he makes is that excellence comes about through pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones, trying things that may not work, ‘falling over’ and then getting back up to try again.

In our development programmes, as well as covering theory, we provide opportunity for leaders to try out new skills.  However, there is obviously limited time available for them to do more than a few practice sessions before we let them loose in the ‘real world’. Then what can happen is that the leader gets some resistance from others to the use of the new approach; they may make some mistakes in their early sessions when things don’t go perfectly to plan; or they become more consciously aware of their level of (in)competence in the new tool.  For these and other reasons the leader often decides to stop using the tool (even though they could see the value of it in the education session) and reverts to their old behaviour.

Imagine what would have happened if Dan Carter had stopped taking goal kicks because he missed a few, or didn’t execute them perfectly the first few times he tried!  Or Roger Federer stopped playing tennis because he missed a few first serves!  The reality is that they both persevered; sought support and feedback; and saw their mistakes as learning opportunities.

Much of this is about attitude, and having clarity about the benefit you will get from continuing to work on the skill / tool / behaviour you are looking to improve.  Once you are clear on the WIIFM (What’s in it for me) and are able to remind yourself of the benefit you will get from continuing to apply yourself to the new skill, the more likely you will be to persevere; seek feedback and develop the skill.

Current research suggests that to develop real ‘mastery’ in something requires around 10,000 hours of practice.  While most of us don’t have the luxury of spending this time on one specific leadership skill, significant progress can be made with fewer hours (more than one or two!), but it still requires application and focus.

So if you have recently learned a new tool or technique, and you are feeling like giving up on it because it’s not been easy to use the first few times you have tried, remind yourself of why you are making the change and the benefit you (or the team or organisation or your family) will get if you build your level of capability beyond where you are now.  It won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all if you stop trying it the first few times you get some resistance or make mistakes!


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