• Desmond Hoo

How do Star Employees Practise? Or… do they?

The debate on whether talent is born or made had been enduring. For avid soccer fans, this would inevitably bring to mind the comparison between a certain Lionel and the Cristiano. The former often being touted as a footballing prodigy, and the latter prides himself on being completely immersed in sheer hard work. When extrapolated, this distillates to innate talent versus consistent practice, but you and I know one cannot achieve greatness without one or the other.

Lionel Messi

Cristiano Ronaldo


Back in 2016 when I chanced upon a podcast by Freakonomics Radio, the hosts expounded that instead of being born with an innate gift like savants, talent is actually be trained and practiced. They supported this claim with empirical data collected in China and Japan where there are found to be a higher number of people with perfect pitch. The expert on the show suggested that because of the language spoken in these countries, where intonation is essential in conveying meaning, their people are trained to differentiate even the slightest intonation, hence, giving them a good base ability in perfecting pitch.


Codifying Proven Techniques


So if practice is an essential ingredient to achieving greatness, would that mean that if I invest x number of hours, I’d get x level of expertise? If only life was that clear cut! Humans, as a species, raise the bar of excellence over time because we’ve learnt how to learn. We identify proven techniques and codify them. By simply repeating the same actions, for however many hours, we won’t necessarily make any significant improvement. Many people took the 10,000 hour rule, an idea found in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, as the only rubric for practice, and left frustrated to not be able to achieve said greatness as promised by the other greats.


In the same podcast program, Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist, and Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, asserted that not all practice makes perfect. For improvement to happen in performance, we must practise what he calls deliberate practice, where we get feedback for clear improvements, and finding ways to eliminate known errors. Feedback is a key ingredient in making all your practice count.


There’s no Improvement in Auto-Pilot


If you look around the world today, the greats seldom, if ever, go on auto-pilot or simply going through the motion. Instead of just practising, you could choose to be focused and engaged, constantly stretching your previous limits and eliminating the gaps. Brains don’t just steer our practice but are shaped by it. Simply doing the same thing (for e.g., driving the same bus route) over and over again will not help with mastery. Deliberate error-correcting would.


The common misconception with the 10,000-hour rule is the notion of clocking hours, where as long as you put in those hours, you’ll get a significant result. Instead focusing on the hours invested, maybe try focussing on the error correction instead. Deliberate practice, where you get constant feedback in order to improve specific performance, helps to close previous gaps between you and mastery. Feedback can come in various forms, be it in a personal coach or trainer, or data and results, or even rewatching your own recordings of training. Whatever form it takes, feedback is crucial to opening your eyes to blind spots and closing those gaps. While the 10,000-hour rule is not the secret sauce to all mastery, the ideas of long-term commitment, tireless practice, and sheer hard work remain important ingredients to achieving expertise.


Feedback is Key to Expertise


Even greats like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo need coaches and trainers to provide constructive feedback and eliminate errors in their game. And while at it, break a few records along the way. The good news is, you can be a great too! Focus on improvement based on constructive feedback from an external point of view is way more effective and efficient than mere repetition. Most can get a job done, but you want colleagues and employees to get the job done well.


For your next training, find one that provides you not just the knowledge, but the feedback on how and where you can improve as well. Be open to feedback, and practise, practise, practise!

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