The inspiration for this blog came from two unlikely sources when it was first drafted six months ago.
The first was several years ago when I came across an article in the Fortune Magazine titled ‘What it takes to be great’ by Geoff Colvin, its senior editor-at-large. In essence, he argued that practice and hard work trump talent. The feedback to the article was so good that he subsequently penned the book ‘Talent Is Overrated’. I read the book only recently (reviewed here) but the idea that talent is not the driver to success had been firmly planted.
The second was my own experience. 16 years of working in the industry has exposed me to a variety of challenges. I have seen several people up close on how they successfully navigate everyday issues, but also have seen others – brilliant, intelligent & hard working in their own way – fail remarkably. About the latter, we just say ‘what wasted talent’ or ‘he could not make it’, and move on. Upon close observation of such folks (who span all levels of an organization from the very top to the entry-level), I was able to derive a few consistently common themes that successful individuals apply and the rest do not.
This blog is about these 4 themes. They will look very ordinary and simple. In fact, you will be very disappointed that they do not sound ‘strategic’. But I can state with confidence that imbibing them is your first step to greatness. While success in life, career, marriage and parenthood is a function of many many aspects, these four make a good beginning.
Before we get on to the themes, let us understand the meaning of precocious talent by taking an example of a person from sports that we are familiar with - Sachin Tendulkar. Die-hard fans will point to his 600+ run stand with Vinod Kambli when he was 15. They will talk about the centuries he scored on debut in the Deodhar & Duleep trophies before 16. And of course, they will rave about his fantastic innings on a bouncy track at Perth that is considered to be one of his finest test centuries before he was 20. All this is proof – they will say – that here was a player who was born with talent and destined to greatness.
But these fans are wrong. Talent is terribly overrated and the themes to success reside elsewhere.
Theme 1: Read Read Read
There are several CEOs in the world who do not play golf, but there is practically no CEO who does not read. World leaders, in addition to running their countries, read about 50-60 books per year. Lack of time or disinterest in reading is no longer an acceptable excuse. Reading opens your mind to new ideas and helps create new ‘connections’ in your head (think of it like the act of raking your head that is similar to how the farmer rakes his land before every sowing season).
Read all that you can get hold of. Fiction is fine, so are comics. Dig into economics – and yes, watch CNBC for business news - even if you don’t understand anything in the beginning. Some day, I promise you, it will all make sense. Read viewpoints from both the left and the right – regardless of your political inclinations. You will be surprised that you are not as much a die-hard capitalist or a bleeding liberal that you thought to be.
Theme 2: Write Write Write
Writing crystallizes your thinking & frames your perspective. This will make you measured – and over time – assured. Take notes…. copious notes... I once had a colleague who would get furious when people walked into his meetings with no notebook in hand. ‘It means’, he would say, ‘either what I am going to say is not important or you think you are not required’.
Theme 3: Practice, Practice, Practice
Look up the 10,000 hour rule on the internet. It states that in order to be considered an expert, you need 10,000 hours of practice. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers argues that Bill Gates of Microsoft & Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems reached greatness by 17 because they had the opportunity to work on computers for over 10,000 hours. In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin explains the elements of deliberate practice – it must be focused, involves feedback, and must be painful.
Incorporate the 10,000 hour rule in your lives. Practice before every speech, every presentation and every meeting. Expect the unexpected. An instructor once told me that before everyone arrived, I must go to the farthest chair in the room and check for font sizes and color palettes on the screen. It was from him that I learned that the days of blaming the projector were over.
Theme 4: Think Think Think
This is most difficult, and often avoided. We get so busy in our work, families, chores etc that we do not spend time to think. I will ask you to start thinking about just 3 questions.
- What is your purpose in life? To put it bluntly, why do you exist?
- What are your values? In short, what do you stand for?
- How do you want to be measured on the day you die?
Start asking these questions from today. I promise you that you will not find the answers right away. Or tomorrow. Or the day after. These will take years. But if you don’t give up, one day you will find them. And that is when you will discover your life’s true calling.
In conclusion, I go back to Sachin Tendulkar. In case you insist that he was just talented, think again. 10+ hours of cricket from the time he was 11. Facing bowlers in the nets from 18 yards instead of 22 to improve his reflexes. A body that has more dents than your bike or your car. Sachin Tendulkar - a true embodiment of deliberate practice. I rest my case.