Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Does Being Exceptional Require an Exceptional Amount of Work?

November 7th, 2008 · 33 comments

The Obama MethodBarack in Crowd

In response to my recent article on Misery Poker, a reader commented:

I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? … maybe extraordinary stress IS required to accomplish extraordinary feats

Another reader added:

I think extraordinary sacrifices are required for great accomplishments.

This is a fascinating argument. Study Hacks, as you know, is driven by the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy, which claims that it’s possible to be both relaxed and impressive. But these commenters are pushing back on this world view. It’s one to thing, they note, to have a successful college career that is also relaxed, but is it possible to have an exceptional career without overwhelming amounts of work?

In this post I claim it is possible. And I’ll explain exactly how…

Barriers and Myths

Let’s start with the myth that drives most peoples’ thinking about what it takes to be exceptional:

The Exceptional Effort Myth: Exceptional results require exceptional amounts of effort.

The logic here is obvious. By definition, if something is exceptional it’s also rare. If it’s rare, there must some difficult barrier to achievement.

This we can agree on.

But what is this barrier? Most people default to the simplest explanation: the barrier that makes exceptional achievement rare is that it requires an exceptional amount of work. This gives us the myth highlighted above.

For some endeavors, of course, this myth matches reality. For example:

  1. Running for president.
  2. Aggressively growing a start-up business.
  3. Becoming a standout junior associate at your law firm.

These exceptional achievements absolutely require lots and lots of work. Their criteria for success have amount of effort explicitly built in. A young lawyer, for example, is judged almost exclusively on the number of hours he bills.

But here’s the thing (and this is the important part): I claim that for most exceptional endeavors, an exceptional amount of work is not required. In other words, the barrier to exceptional achievement is not the volume of effort, but something else entirely…

The Magic of Deliberative Practice

Last year, Geoff Colvin, a senior editor at Fortune Magazine, wrote an article titled: Why Talent is Overrated. It was a sensation. He received so many letters that he soon expanded the ideas into a full length book of the same name, which was released last month.

At the core of the article was a simple proposition: the real path to great performance is not built on natural talent or volume of hard work. As Colvin describes, recent research has increasingly highlighted, instead, the importance of a very specific type of work called deliberative practice.

Researchers claim that it’s this type of practice — not natural talent, and not raw hours spent working — that makes the bulk of the difference between exceptional people and the rest.

Colvin provides five traits that define deliberative practice:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance.
    “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice. At the driving range or at the piano, most of us are just doing what we’ve done before and hoping to maintain the level of performance that we probably reached long ago.”
  2. It can be repeated a lot.
    “Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available.
    “[Y]ou may believe you played that bar of the Brahms violin concerto perfectly, but can you really trust your own judgment? In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”
  4. It is highly demanding mentally.
    “Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities…no one can sustain it for very long.”
  5. It’s hard.
    “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”

I want to draw your attention to point (4). In further explaining this property, Colvin tells a story:

Nathan Milstein, one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists, was a student of the famous teacher Leopold Auer. As the story goes, Milstein asked Auer if he was practicing enough. Auer responded, “Practice with your fingers, and you need all day. Practice with your mind, and you will do as much in 1-1/2 hours.” What Auer didn’t add is that it’s a good thing 1-1/2 hours are enough, because if you’re truly practicing with your mind, you couldn’t possibly keep it up all day.

In other words, deliberative practice is hard. It demands we leave our comfort zone. We need expert feedback. We have to return again and again to the same trouble areas to get better. But the one thing it’s not is exceptionally time consuming. It can’t be. You simply can’t keep it up for 12 hours a day.

Pulling It All Together

I’m fascinated by deliberative practice because it provides a missing piece to our ongoing conversation about becoming a standout.

Recall, for example, our discussion of Steve Martin. His path to becoming famous was defined by deliberative practice: every night, he would return to a comedy club and try to push his comedy a little bit further into new territory. This was hard. But instead of defaulting to easy laughs he relentless drove his routine forward.

We see similar patterns with our student case studies:

While Toph was working in Australia, he kept taking on projects that stretched him beyond his current ability within the marketing field. The result was a rapid rise. When he left, the company begged him to stay.

Scott had a similar experience pushing himself to become an Eastern Europe expert once he arrived at Law School. He’s now on his way to a Fullbright Scholarship.

Here’s my conclusion. For most endeavors, the path to becoming exceptional requires that:

  1. You focus on one thing and commit to it over a long period of time.
  2. During this period, you consistently engage in deliberative practice, again and again, to cause a rapid rise in your ability.

This approach is consistent with the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. The practice is hard but short. If you’re properly focused and can put in an hour or two of deliberative work on most days, you can become exceptional. Doing more work isn’t going to help. Neither will tacking on dozens of other activities or commitments.

So if your goal is to become a true star, take a careful look at how you spend your time. Beneath all of your activities and faux-busyness, what really matters is the time spent buckling down and putting in the right type of effort to get better at what’s most important to you. Everything else is just for show.

(Photo by Thirty30; modified by author)

33 thoughts on “Does Being Exceptional Require an Exceptional Amount of Work?

  1. Mike Perry says:

    You assume Obama is an “exceptional” individual. Even a casual look at his actual accomplishments says otherwise.

    He’s been in corrupt Chicago politics for 20 years, and yet he’s not played even a minor role in removing a single corrupt politician from office. Some are, in fact, his friends. Five years heading the Annenberg Challenge and dispensing $165 million in grants produced no significant improvements in Chicago schools. I could do better than that. His lack of remorse about that suggests he cares nothing about poor and minority kids forced to attend substandard public schools.

    His actual behavior suggests vanity, publishing two autobiographies while still young, and meanness, he has a reputation for treating fellow Democrats rather shabbily on his way to the top, Hillary being the most recent example.

    Obama is a classic example of the narcissistic personality, one that thinks it is exceptional. For confirmation, Google the word and compare the diagnostic indications with Obama and the “enabler” indications with his wife. Then read a bit about the grief that results with a narcissist is in a top executive position.

    In contrast, Sarah Palin has exceptional talent, as her record in Alaska demonstrates. That’s why liberals went ballistic when she became McCain’s VP nomination and why the Obama-tilted press made more effort to dig up dirt on her in two weeks than they did during Obama’s entire campaign.

  2. Kara says:

    I think being elected president of the United States by a significant margin qualifies as exceptional.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    You assume Obama is an “exceptional” individual. Even a casual look at his actual accomplishments says otherwise.

    Regardless of whether you like Obama, being elected president is an exceptional achievement. Other achievements that are unambiguously exceptional: writing an critically acclaimed memoir; becoming president of the Harvard law review; going from zero family connections to US Senator in a short period of time. Few people could do any of those things.

    Palin also has done exceptional things. Namely, becoming governor. Few people could do this.

    why the Obama-tilted press made more effort to dig up dirt on her in two weeks than they did during Obama’s entire campaign.

    Boo hoo. Obama kicked ass. Deal with it. :)

  4. I thought the elections were over!

    But this was a great post Cal. I believe this is an excellent addition to the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. You have focused a lot on what the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy is, but this really gives a method to achieving it.

    4. It is highly demanding mentally.
    “Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities…no one can sustain it for very long.”

    Yes it may be mentally straining. But because you are more focused and trying to improve your skills, it should take less time to improve. Therefore, you have more time to relax.

  5. supergirl says:

    As a music performance major, I see this all the time. It’s pretty standard fare to teach it at most conservatories. A few observations:

    1. When everyone else is doing this too, it’s not as effective in getting a leg up, particularly if they’ve been doing it longer than you or are better versed in the method of doing it. I don’t think musical talent is innate, but I do think the ability to concentrate can be, and it’s sometimes really intimidating to see how much concentration the pros put into their practice.
    2. Every so often, you also meet concert pianist who can focus and practice really efficiently AND do it for six hours a day (usually with really long breaks interspersed between each hour, though).
    3. At least with music, focus shouldn’t mean stress or unnecessary difficulty even in that hour when you’re giving it your all. One of the most efficient ways to practice is to play a small group of two or three notes at a time until you can play them really well in a very relaxed manner, then to string those small groups into phrases of five or six notes, and gradually build it up. It’s not difficult at all to play three notes. That’s where the focus comes from – making what you have to do really easy so that you can focus on doing it really well.

  6. Danny says:

    Enlightening post. Now that I look back at my math studies, I improved the most when I pushed myself to exhaustion, though that would take max 1-1.5 hrs on difficult problems.

    Sadly, I didn’t continue that trend :( Time to return to my studies :)

  7. Study Hacks says:

    As a music performance major, I see this all the time. It’s pretty standard fare to teach it at most conservatories.

    Very interesting. Here’s what I’m wondering, if you were to apply your experience with effective skill development to the task of taking a normal college class, what would that look like?

  8. Study Hacks says:

    Now that I look back at my math studies, I improved the most when I pushed myself to exhaustion, though that would take max 1-1.5 hrs on difficult problems.

    I’m starting to develop the theory that those that develop into “math people” are those who happen to attack problem sets in a way that produces quality deliberative practice.

  9. Amit C says:

    Cal,

    I do not know where you got the idea that Obama did not have to work hard. Look at his schedule. For example, see the weekend quote in
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/05/us/politics/05recon.html?sq=obama%20campaign&st=cse&scp=4&pagewanted=all

    When Mr. Obama, the father of two young girls, asked if he could go home on weekends, his aides replied: Not if you want to win.

    Even in the book, Think & Grow Rich, it is mentioned to work with QQS (Quality, Quantity & Spirit of Co-operation) and to keep things at singular focus.

    Delibrate practice is improvement, which is another aspect.
    Your insight on being exceptional as a goal for one’s output is another aspect and a good one, but does not convey, hardwork is not needed.

    Regards
    Amit

  10. andres jimenez says:

    @Amit, I think I am missing something, hardwork doesnt mean “exceptional amount” of work, right?
    as well as “he doesnt go home” on weekends doesnt mean he stays all day working.

    As you said, Hardwork is required, to me as its a self-produced “stress” to go over the limits for good. Just like weight lifting.

  11. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    I have been thinking of how this could be integrated into a student life? Although pursuing better study methods may be a good place to be doing deliberative practice – wouldn’t the time frame for getting feedback be a bit late. That is feedback from tests/assignments/quizzes. Usually students do not have tests every week (thank God!), so how would a student measure his/her work, or obtain feedback?

    My idea is primarily to the sciences, but I believe when you have studied a certain topic for about 1-1.5 hours, and are able to connect that fact/idea to any new topic you encounter – that this can be a good measure (tells you that you truly understand the topic, and your study method is very efficient). What are your thoughts Cal?

  12. FSU Grad Student says:

    I get what you are saying, but you are missing a key component of the “deliberate practice” research, and this missing component undermines your argument. In order to become an expert, researchers (Ericcson chief among them) say that you have to engage in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice which usually takes 10 years. So you are right about the importance of deliberate practice, but you neglect to mention how much of it if have to do to become a true expert.

  13. Study Hacks says:

    I do not know where you got the idea that Obama did not have to work hard.

    No one is saying that. In fact, the article says the exact opposite — running for president is an example of an activity in which you have to work hard.

    That is feedback from tests/assignments/quizzes. Usually students do not have tests every week (thank God!), so how would a student measure his/her work, or obtain feedback?

    Interesting question. In non-technical classes, perhaps, you can get feedback on your reading assignments by how well you understand them when discussed in lecture. In technical classes, problem sets and recitation sessions probably help pinpoint exactly where you have weaknesses. Asking questions in class is another way to test how well you grasp something.

    I’ll keep thinking abotu this…

    but I believe when you have studied a certain topic for about 1-1.5 hours,

    When I threw out that 1 – 1.5 hour metric — which was more or less random — I was thinking more about a non-academic activity. Like working on your writing, or something…

    but you neglect to mention how much of it if have to do to become a true expert.

    This is true. But at the college level, to become exceptional in something does not necessarily mean that you meet this same level of mastery. I’m still working, for example, on becoming a real expert writer, but by the time I’d graduated college I was ahead of most of my peers.

  14. nelsonway says:

    Another solid post Cal. Thanks for explaining #4 better.

    I have had similar experiences as Ilham. In classes where we don’t get feedback on assignments until after another assignment is already due, the learning process really suffers. (Usually the Prof. has a backlog because of a large number of students)

    I think we, as students, feel that we are “suppose to” succeed on our own.

    This leads to a whole campus of students wishing they had somesort of feedback on what they are working on. Sometimes all I need is proofreading or someone to say “I don’t understand paragraph 3″.

    Maybe we all need a network of ‘hey…can you check my project quick’

    With e-mail the exchange would be quick and not require any more time than agreed upon (as in, please comment but don’t spend more than 10 minutes)

    Love to hear if anyone is doing this consistently already.

  15. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    Nelsonway, that is an interesting idea about the network. With all of these social sites such as facebook, you would think that something like this would already be happening. Maybe someday we will have a whole network site just made for this – although plagiarism would be a big problem I suppose.

  16. Study Hacks says:

    Love to hear if anyone is doing this consistently already.

    Me too. Would a weekly meeting with 3 – 4 people for each course accomplish this goal? What if you had a rigorous structure for these discussions to keep them maximally efficient.

  17. Ilham Hafizovic says:

    Another great tool that could be used Cal, and you have mentioned this one before is Google Documents. With Google Documents – anyone within the group can upload documents and others can comment or edit the work.

    Although this works best with group work, I think if we omit the editing art by partners, that this technology could also work besides email.

  18. I’m not sure why this guy presents this stuff as if it’s his own creation. It’s obviously drawn from groundbreaking work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and published in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

  19. Jonas Park says:

    It’s a good pointer to how we can best utilize the time we spend on any task where excellence is rewarded, but I don’t think his point goes further than “Don’t just work hard, also work smart.” Which we should all strive to do anyway but don’t.

    @Donnie: Csikszentmihalyi’s work forms the backbone of the current positive psychology movement, and his main point is that we obtain a maximal level of HAPPINESS in life when we’re challenged just beyond our comfort zone on a regular basis. Mastery, on the other hand, goes beyond attaining satisfaction, and calls for deliberative practice which Csik doesn’t directly touch on. And concepts like the 10-year rule and deliberative practice have had their proponents way before Csik’s time.

  20. supergirl says:

    Very interesting. Here’s what I’m wondering, if you were to apply your experience with effective skill development to the task of taking a normal college class, what would that look like?

    Overkill. Generally I find that it’s not as necessary to focus as hard in normal classes (I do music as a double degree with law because in Australia it’s customary to do your undergraduate and your law degree concurrently as a 5 or 6 year combined course) – usually the need to focus in music comes from the fact that it’s a set of physical patterns that become ingrained through large amounts of repetition. Getting rid of a bad habit when it’s become so ingrained that it becomes an automatic physical reflex that you don’t even notice is wrong anymore is a pretty monumental task. Deliberative practice works because by breaking practice up into small, manageable chunks, focusing, thinking about what you’re doing, and expecting high standards of yourself, you pick up the skills without burning mistakes into your cerebellum. The same goes for sport, dance, chess, and possibly public speaking. In academic classes, however, you read the comments on your test or essay, you review what you did wrong, and then you just don’t do it again. No need to battle lots of little ingrained habits. I’ve probably repeated each of the phrases I have to play in a recital correctly 100 times before they get to the stage. I wouldn’t dream of rewriting every sentence in a paper that many times, especially not a sentence that is already correct, because once it’s written it’s there and you don’t have to relive it every time someone wants to read your paper.

    That said, focus, planning, high standards, and working on weaknesses are good for all activities (and shockingly absent in rather large numbers of students — I think it’s not a coincidence that all the top students at my high school were musicians), it’s just that I think Colvin was referring to things that have a habitual component and constantly need to be relearned and recreated every time you do them rather than things that have a concrete object like a problem set or set of study notes that you can continually go back to and fix.

  21. Study Hacks says:

    I’m not sure why this guy presents this stuff as if it’s his own creation.

    Geoff Colvin is a reporter, not a researcher. He certainly doesn’t claim these are his ideas. Indeed, the whole point of the article (and now book) is to explain what the latest research has to say about becoming really good.

    With Google Documents – anyone within the group can upload documents and others can comment or edit the work.

    Even better, use the service by our friends over at Wiggio.

    In academic classes, however, you read the comments on your test or essay, you review what you did wrong, and then you just don’t do it again. No need to battle lots of little ingrained habits.

    Great analysis!

  22. @Jonas: Sort of. But these rules for deliberative practice are almost identical to Mihaly’s rules for entering flow.

  23. Diaz says:

    so how about stuffs like physcis and math…do trying to understand advanced concepst count as deliberate practices..?

  24. Daniel Griffin says:

    @supergirl

    In academic classes, however, you read the comments on your test or essay, you review what you did wrong, and then you just don’t do it again. No need to battle lots of little ingrained habits.

    In each of the subjects that I took upper level classes in (history, philosophy, and political science), there was a need to battle little ingrained habits of poor thinking and to stretch yourself to build better little habits of thinking. Rather than stumbling through courses and adjusting only when and where an instructor tells you to adjust, great students in those fields recognize that it is their habits of thought that lead to either lackluster or stellar performance and those habits are formed through deliberative practice. For many students it is not just their thinking that is required, but thinking about their thinking. Those courses are very reading and writing centric. The required ability for both reading and writing for those courses goes beyond the level taught in primary school. Mortimer J. Adler argues in How To Read A Book that most people do not move beyond the elementary level of reading until they complete graduate school. Thought patterns, or habits of thought, designed to identify bias, to identify second-order effects, to avoid eristic arguments, and to ensure clarity in thinking and writing are not easily developed. This isn’t to say that most classes at the undergraduate level require any deliberative practice at all. But, if one wants to be excellent in any of those fields deliberative practice is going to be very useful.

  25. I think that part of the method for all of us is to determine things for which all-out effort is required and those for which it is not. Sometimes jargon in a difficult area will suddenly coalesce and make sense at 2a.m. before the deadline for a paper. Other times, you’d be better off just getting some sleep and identifying a different area in which to distinguish yourself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>