Practice, obsession and the catch-up game

I’m currently reading Bounce, the book by Matthew Syed that debunks the “Talent Myth”.   It’s a well-written exposition of how the individuals we think of as being child prodigies or otherwise abnormally gifted, often had circumstances that were highly conducive to their later success.

He writes convincingly of the 10,000 hour “rule” for developing expertise.  This states that in order to develop world class expertise in a particular field, one has to apply focussed practice for around 10,000 hours  in order to achieve it.  In the case of many of the highly recognisable names, they had accumulated that level of practice by their late teens or early twenties.

So what do we do if we want to become expert-level (not necessarily world-class) at something later in life?  How do we accumulate the expertise when we are typically much more time-poor?

I came across an article recently on Becky Lynch, a WWE champion wrestler, who has had an atypical path to US wrestling stardom.  In 2018, at age 32 she was ..”named the CBS Wrestler of the Year, Sports Illustrated’s Women’s Wrestler of the Year, WWE’s Female Superstar of the Year, Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Woman of the Year.”

I had never heard of Becky (born Rebecca Quin) despite the fact that she is one of the most famous Irish wrestlers in the world.  This isn’t surprising, since I’m not a follower of wrestling, but I was impressed by the success she has achieved despite multiple false starts and diversions.  One of the things that she said in the article with was this:

I worked for it — that’s the difference. And I obsessed about it and I think about it non-stop. Anyone can say ‘I want to do this or that,’ but I was obsessing about it.

Last week I attended a talk by Rosemary Smith, where she discussed her career and some of the challenges of being a female rally driver and motor racing driver, starting in the 1960’s.  She’s still rallying today at 81. During the course of her successful career she rallied across Europe, the Americas and the Alps.  Her longest rally was around 17,000 miles. Apart from being a hugely entertaining speaker and a formidable person, she is also clearly obsessed with driving.  At age 79, as part of a Renault track event, she became the oldest person to ever drive a Formula 1 car.

Like Becky Lynch, she didn’t start out on her chosen path.  She was initially a dress designer, and only became a rally driver in her early twenties.

And, like him or loathe him, Conor McGregor fits the late bloomer/false starter mould as well – he was a plumber when he started his Mixed Martial Arts career at 20.   While it is difficult to hold him up as a role model, it is clear that he is driven by obsession to succeed at his chosen profession, and to be known.  And in this he has clearly made a mark – despite starting later in life than many who have practiced their skills for thousands of hours more than he has.

So what can we take from the above, small sample? (And yes, I know they’re all Irish sportspeople, but that is definitely by accident rather than design.)  Two things that strike me: 1) We’re never really stuck on a path, and 2) within reason, it’s never too late to become really good at something.

It requires a commitment to practice that most of us are unwilling to put in to get to superstar level, but even a modicum of regular practice will drive us from poor to good, good to great, and great to expert over time.

And being obsessive about something important helps.  If our desire is to become a better manager or technologist or communicator, or just a better person, start by picking just one thing to improve at and practice it at every opportunity.  Life is short, but it’s never too short for us to get better – we just have to recognise the opportunity and exercise the discipline to take it.

What are you going to obsess about this year?

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