Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lesson 3: Performing At World Class Levels

For many of us, “success” is probably a concept with multiple meanings, dependent on its context. One person’s idea of success may be another person’s idea of mediocrity. But whenever we attempt to define success, we can get lost in the specifics of what success is supposed to look like. Instead, we rationalize the outcome as successful even though it might not meet the benchmarks we first intended.

It is this last concept which is a major factor that differentiates world-class success from mediocrity disguised as success. Our intent here is to examine the practices of what formulates undeniable success by any criteria of the definition. It should also be noted that success is most often developed over time through trial and error. It is important to define success as a maturation process—one where determination sustains the process even at the risk of continued failures. By staying true to the envisioned outcome and to continue towards that objective is success measureable with benchmarks over time. Too often, when circumstances test our patience, we accept the easier road to a lesser outcome. This is mediocrity, and it will define our standards and our legacy.

The Good and the Bad
A prime example of defining the status quo and mediocrity as success is here in Oakland. It is one thing to feel a sense of community pride and believe in the positive potential for this city. Without a doubt, there are huge advantages to living and working in Oakland including a pleasant year-round climate, proximity to natural beauties, the influences from Silicon Valley technology, a great transportation hub, nearby world-class universities and their peripheral industries, an independent, organic small business movement, a rich cultural setting and a higher-than-average standard of living. We are the envy of many other urban areas around the world.

On the darker side, Oakland is ranked with the country’s fifth highest crime rate, the largest welfare population per capita in the nation, the highest unemployment rate in the Bay Area, an escalating governmental budget crisis and a city bureaucracy that continues to hold onto an outdated paradigm of economic health by providing tax breaks to large businesses when in fact, all of the employment gains have come from new micro-enterprises.

During this period (2006-2010), Oakland touted itself as a potential “Model City,” a designation that would catapult the city’s achievements into the national limelight—and a measure of success. (The Model City program began in the mid-1960s as a part of the federal urban renewal and social service programs aimed at ridding our cities of poverty.) In addition, the mayor’s office formed 41 citizen task forces in 2006 made up of over 800 volunteers in an unprecedented display of community activism (undoubtedly a success). And while an opinion piece in the Oakland Tribune by Mayor Ron Dellums (January 15, 2009) indicated that two thirds of the recommendations forged by the advisory committees have been implemented, one would be pressed to seek out where exactly these recommendations have served their purpose. (In the area of small business development, the Small Business Task Force came up with five distinct recommendations in December 2006. Not until July 2009 did its most important recommendation come to fruition—the development and opening of the Business Assistance Center.)
Business Assistance Center
Until the Business Assistance Center was open, a common frustration for many small business owners was the confusion and slowness of meeting bureaucratic requirements. This ineffective process for business development in Oakland steered many potential companies from coming into this city. In contrast, the little city of Emeryville with a population of 8,000, north of Oakland, has blossomed as both a shopping destination and technology hub. One of its landmark victories is a shopping area called Bay Street which the developers had originally wanted to establish in Oakland given that the city had a population 44 times larger. Oakland also lost two of the most lucrative new industries to Emeryville as well: biotech and nanotech. How they could have allowed such a dinky city to get the upper hand is remarkable. These are yet-to-be studied cases that must be of grave embarrassment to Oakland’s public officials. But getting the details may be near impossible because no one in Oakland wants to talk and no one in Emeryville wants to brag. (In my 30 years of working with municipalities, I have yet to experience a city with so many meetings and discussions and so few outcomes.)

While Oakland continues to consider its economic, social and future potentials, its neighbors aren’t waiting. They established a plan of action and moved further ahead. For all intents and purposes, Oakland remains in status quo; nothing from the ordinary has changed. If “success” cannot be defined in more precise terms—and if we as responsible citizens do not initiate how we see success and how it needs to be implemented—what will be left are broad methods of “framing” or a viewpoint composed of selective facts presented as the entire truth. In this case, the framing will continue to be painted in one of two ways: 1) rosy, futuristic pictures without real commitment or 2) the doom-and-gloom of on-going fiscal cutbacks justifying the lack of progress.

Settling for Mediocrity?
Acceptance of the status quo means that we consistently settle for mediocrity. It is exactly the same as the old scientific experiment of placing a live frog into a tub of water and slowly heating it. As the temperature gradually rises, the frog remains unaware of the changes until it is too late. At that point, the frog is unable to physically remove itself from the hot water and he perishes. Someday, we might find ourselves in that nice warm tub of water without realizing that the burners are lit.  

Your desire to become an entrepreneur comes from feeling the heat of the rising temperature and the disconnect you’re experiencing. Yet given how long we’ve lived in a state of status quo, we lose our natural experiential ability to resolve the situation. For example, our local bureaucrats aren’t doing us any favors as the federal funds come funneling through to Oakland. In 2010, a large Oakland agency received over $11 million for developing new innovative ways of creating jobs for the inner-city poor. In a year’s time, a whopping total of 14 jobs have come about. As Albert Einstein said, problems can’t be resolved by those who created them.

If that sounds cynical, consider how many of us have been scrambling to make ends meet over the past decade while traditional institutions waste away millions in the same old ways. Why is nearly 85 percent of the wealth now controlled by ten percent of the people? Why has medical costs skyrocketed resulting in major corporate profits while 48 million Americans cannot afford medical insurance? Why have millions faced housing foreclosures and complete ruination of their financial wellbeing while financial institutions that incited this fiscal meltdown get a $700 billion welfare check?

Out of Kilter
Why does the American government have no problem spending $10 billion a month in Iraq during 2008 but finds it necessary to cut public education, public transportation, public employment programs, and public health? Why do oil companies continue to be the biggest beneficiaries of federal tax cuts as they announce billions in profits? Why does the highest paid executive in our largest companies make over 200 times that of their lowest employees and to boot, receive a golden parachute worth millions more for resigning after driving their companies into bankruptcy?  The status quo is out of kilter.

Now that I’ve pissed you off, let’s discuss how we become successful small business owners and learn to take control of our futures. The first lesson is looking at those who have performed extraordinarily well in their chosen fields. When you’re reading these descriptions, think about how they can be applied to you as an entrepreneur. This will also be your introduction to “deliberate practice,” as identified in Talent Is Overrated (Geoff Colvin, 2008, Portfolio). As you read these stories – paraphrased from Talent Is Overrated - you’ll begin to envision what deliberate practice means. In essence, it is identifying specific areas with the highest impact/return, and then working diligently to hone those specific skills. In its broadest characteristics, deliberate practice accomplishes these objectives:
  • It is designed to improve specific performance
  • It can be practiced repetitiously over a long period of time
  • Feedback is constantly available
  • It is mentally demanding on focus and concentration
  • It isn’t fun but if it were most people would do it

When you read the characteristics of deliberate practice, you’ll find these complementary requirements:
  • Specific practice that is ten times more effective than conventional practice
  • Master coaching from someone who has had years of practice, training, and coaching experience
  • Ignition: your determination to commit to your passion for the long term

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Child Prodigy in His Father’s Eyes
Wolfgang Mozart is considered one of the greatest musical legends in history. By the time he was five years old, he was composing music. At eight, he was giving public performances as a pianist and violinist. By age 12, he was composing complete orchestra pieces. His father Leopold Mozart was in his own right a renowned composer and performer, and according to historical records, a domineering parent.

He started young Mozart in musical training at the age of three—a highly intensive program in composition and performing. Leopold was qualified to teach his young son because of his own experiences but also because he had an acute interest in how music was taught to children. In fact, Leopold’s book on violin instruction published in the same year that Wolfgang was born remained influential for decades.

So Wolfgang had not only a great teacher, but one who cared enough to give his student a great deal of attention. This would explain how Wolfgang was able to advance in music at such a young age. But not so fast: when researchers studied Wolfgang’s earliest composition, they noted that the manuscripts had been “edited” by his father, which by the way, was at the same time that Leopold stopped composing music. The researchers also looked over Wolfgang’s first four piano concertos, composed at the age of 11 and found that none of them were original. Instead, they were pieces taken from various other composers and then melded together into one piece. These resembled much of the work composed by Johann Sebastian Bach whom Mozart studied under from age eight through his teenage years.

Today, none of these early works is considered masterful, and in fact, they are all viewed as mediocre. Occasionally, they are performed only for their novelty. But the key point isn’t that Mozart wasn’t who we think he was. He was indeed a student of deliberate practice. He developed a concentration of music that is rare and concise. This highly-concentrated learning process finally paid off at the age of 21 when Mozart composed the first of his great pieces: “Piano Concerto No. 9.” But think about it: he was already a veteran of the musical world having studied consistently for 18 years under intensely hard, expert training under master coaches.

Another tale of Mozart is that he could compose entire symphonies in his head. In fact, a letter to a friend stated this: “the whole, though it is long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind . . . committing to paper is done quickly enough . . . and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.”

If true, we would conclude that Mozart was a genius as we still tend to believe. But as scholars later concluded, the letter was a forgery. In fact, Mozart had never completed a single symphony in his head. Rather, he was constantly revising, reworking, and changing his ideas as his surviving manuscripts show. What it does show is that he was an ordinary human. But he was an ordinary human with extraordinary determination. And his works are still considered masterful.

Going back to the characteristics of deliberate practice, you can see how Mozart implemented each of those points. However, in today’s version of the so-called “Baby Mozart Effect,” Mozart himself would rate just a bit better than the average prodigy. The level of our abilities has advanced in child development to the point that parents who are determined to develop a world class performer will begin to work with their child shortly after birth. One of the most famous is the story of Earl Woods and his son, Tiger. Earl was a fanatical golfer, a teacher of military history and tactics and a baseball coach. From the time Tiger was born, both Earl and his wife, Kultida, vowed to make their son the center of their world. When Tiger was seven months old, Earl had him hold his first golf club. In their garage, Earl set up a net to hit golf balls with Tiger sitting in a high chair for hours watching his dad. Before he was two years old, Tiger was on the golf course, hitting balls. The rest is history.

A sidebar: in his book, Disrupting Class (2008), Clayton Christensen’s study of early childhood education shows that children will have established their learning process by the time they are three years old. Parents who are diligent in spending time with their children reading to them, teaching them to read and write, and showing them that learning is fun will have established a foundation by the time they enter the first grade. For parents who don’t, their children will play catch-up and in many cases fall behind.

Jerry Rice, Football Player Extraordinaire
Jerry Rice was drafted as the 16th overall pick in the 1985 National Football League draft. He was selected by the San Francisco 49ers after 15 other teams had passed on him even though he held many college records in football. He was named to every All American team indicating his stature as one of college football’s best receivers that year. However, the knock on Rice was that he wasn’t fast enough and that he attended little Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, MS, with a population of 1,946. This gave the perception that the competition he faced was less than those of a major college.

At the end of his career, Rice had set the NFL record for total catches, number of touchdown catches and total yards gained in 303 games, also a record. His statistics aren’t just a bit better than the second place receiver; his were 50 percent better than the next guy when he retired. In a game of inches, what he had accomplished was remarkable.

Rice played for 20 seasons in a position that has one of the highest rates of injury. In his case, he missed only the 1997 season due to an injury missing 14 games out of 16. In football, the average career of all players is less than four years due to injuries and the ever-present competition. It has one of the highest turnover rates of any sport. So what allowed Rice to remain for so long and become the most productive wide receiver in football history?

Practice Makes Perfect
For those who are students of the game, Rice’s performance was clearly understood: he worked harder in practice and trained more extensively in the off-season than anyone else. He hustled during practice and stayed on that practice field long after his teammates had left; sprinting, gauging the number of steps for each pattern he would run during a game, and practice his routes to perfection so that the quarterback could feel confident in throwing the ball to him even before he got to the spot where it would be delivered.

His famous off-season workouts were held six days out of the week. They consisted of cardiovascular workouts in the morning usually running five miles in hilly areas including a series of ten 40-meter sprints on the steepest parts. In the afternoon, he hit the weight room for several hours strengthening his body.

But for all his hard work, it did not make him any faster, a quality that most football experts consider critical in order to be a great player. So, what made Rice stand out over the other receivers? If you look at his training, there’s little evidence of it being a football player’s training. His off season workouts could have been for many different sports. During the football season, the 49ers did very few contact practices saving that brutality for the actual games. Instead, Rice practiced his routes in synchronicity with the other players, continued to condition his body, and spent hours in a classroom studying the other team, and learning the offensive strategies for the upcoming game.

If you were to look at the amount of time Rice spent over his career in football-related work, it would look something like this: 40 hours per week during the season including 12 weeks of pre-season practice and 16 weeks of the actual season (not counting post-season playoffs). That’s 28 weeks at 40 hours or 1120 hours of seasonal work. During the offseason, let’s say he works out for 24 weeks at six hours per day or 36 hours per week. This would total 864 hours of off-season work. So in the course of a year, Rice would spend 1984 hours on football. Now if you consider that there are four practice games, 16 regular season games, and assuming the offense has the ball half of the 60-minute time limit for a game, that would give Rice ten hours of actual game time annually. This means for the 10 hours he was playing the game, there were 1974 hours of practice time or less than one percent of his time actually playing the game!

Finding the Right Hard Work
But even hard work by itself doesn’t explain his greatness. If you analyze what he did during his practices, then you’ll note that he concentrated on specific things (deliberate practice) and became an expert in each. These included: running precise routes, evading tacklers, out-muscling his defenders when they tried to strip the ball away, and the initial burst of speed to get away from his tacklers. So Rice didn’t have to be the fastest guy because he had identified the skills necessary to make up for speed and more importantly, to pinpoint those things he would have to excel at in order to succeed.

So all the work (deliberate practice) he put himself through had specific goals relating to football:
  • Trail running gave him control to suddenly change directions
  • Uphill wind sprints gave him explosive acceleration
  • Weight training gave him superior strength
  • Endurance training gave him the ability to outrun his opponents in the fourth quarter

Chris Rock, What Looks Easy Took Months of Practice
If you’ve seen Chris Rock in person, on HBO or a special awards presentation, his uncanny comedic ability seems natural if not inherited. He is known for his quick wit and sharp tongue. The truth is that Rock is a perfectionist who will practice for months before stepping onto the stage of a world class venue. Appearing before thousands, he will move through a two hour dialogue of stories and hilarious anecdotes that will be remembered by his audience for months and years.

Here again, the idea is that preparation is critical because for Rock, making a mistake on stage is paramount to a degradation of his own high standards – his own developed criteria for himself. He also establishes his standards as a public performer and measures his success based on the reaction of his audience.

Recently, a newspaper report followed Rock in preparation of a New Year’s Eve performance at Madison Square Garden before 20,000 people. As he tells his first joke, he is expecting a laugh from his audience because he has practiced that joke dozens of times and perfected the timing so that he knows exactly when his audience will laugh.

For two years prior to his New Year’s Eve date, Rock had performed in smaller clubs in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Nevada, building his repertoire minute by minute experimenting and deleting the bombs from the hits. Giving dozens of shows over those 24 months leading to his main event, Rock knows that every minute of his performance must be calculated and rehearsed in order to give his audience what they came for: laugher and a good time. As Vinnie Brand, owner of the Stress Factory in New Jersey said, “He came out here and worked his material, over and over, cutting and trimming, until by the last show you could not believe what he had put together. He still has that hunger to be a great stand-up comedian no matter what his name is.”

Comedic Excellence Requires Serious Work
Rock defined what his success looked like, which for a stage performer, is a great reaction from his audience. And in his case, that audience was sitting at one of the great world showcases: Madison Square Garden. He reached beyond his comfort zone and attempted new materials, some of which worked and some that didn’t. But he was willing to go through the ridicule and the harshness of his audience in order to find what worked because he had a clear picture of what his success looked like. Like Jerry Rice, there are some commonalities that have placed Rock among the best known comedians in the world:
  • Constant repetition—appearance after appearance, working the materials over and over.
  • Responding to the feedback—the willingness to take brutal criticism and making improvements.
  • Disregard for the status quo—working the small clubs where the intimacy with the audience is greater for the sole intent of improving as a comedian.

But does hard work in deliberate practice answer all the questions to success? Of course not. Life just doesn’t work that way. Timing is important; so is luck and being in the right place at the right time. But doesn’t luck and good timing seem to happen to those who work the hardest? We also cannot leave out a person’s circumstances. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008), his research shows the relationship with these issues as key ingredients in the success of most people. But being lucky, writes Gladwell, of itself requires diligent, hard training in order to make it all succeed.

The Research Behind Success
The idea that success can be studied and scientifically broken down so that anyone can utilize it was originally developed in 1978 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, PA. While there are other studies from earlier times, none was as extensive or as well published as that initiated by Professor William Chase, a psychologist and a postdoctoral fellow named Anders Ericsson. So significant is this research that numerous books have been written on this legendary work including “Outliers, The Talent Code, Talent Is Overrated, Moonwalking with Einstein and the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.”

The original experiment they were conducting was in finding out how average individuals would fare on a standard memory test called “the digital span task.” The researcher would state a number each second, and it was up to the tested individual to recall as many numbers in sequence as possible. The average is seven numbers, a fact that was common during the many years the test had been conducted.

Hiring students as guinea pigs, the most famous case pertained to one individual known by his initials “SF.”  SF, although of average intelligence was able to recall 22 digits, a new record at the time. While progressing along slowly for several weeks, an epiphany struck SF that changed his memory skills and for that matter, lead researchers on their first recorded method of developing the Science of Success.

Memorizing By Association
What interested the researchers was the method by which he recited the sequence: after hearing the numbers, he kept saying, “all right, all right, all right, oh geez!” He then clapped his hands three times, grew quiet and focused. Then he began the sequence: “Four, thirteen. One,” he yelled. “Seven, seven, eighty-four” pause, “zero, six, zero, three.” Another pause, then he screamed, “Four, ninety-four, eighty-seven, zero” pause, “nine, forty-six, point two!” That was 22 numbers and a new record.

What SF figured out was that memorizing the numbers in the context of something he was already familiar with made it easier. In his case, he was a distance runner, so SF memorized the numbers as if they were running times. In fact, this become one of the hallmark methods of exceptional memorization. 

SF’s achievements did not last long because he kept coming back and breaking his record. After two years and 250 hours of training, he was able to recall 82 numbers in sequence. One would think that the ability to recall 82 numbers in perfect sequence as it is stated every one second would be impossible especially from a person of average intelligence. While SF stopped at 82, there was no reason to believe that he could not have improved upon that. In fact, a friend of SF who also became a subject of the experiment went up to 102. And as the two researchers, Chase and Ericsson concluded: “There is apparently no limit to improvements in memory skills with practice.” (In fact, these memory skills will seem like counting the fingers on your hand compared to the progress made in memorizing skills. See the examples in “Moonwalking With Einstein.”

There were two critical points to this research:
  1. A person of average intelligence has the capacity to reach levels that would seem unimaginable.
  2. From this original experiment, it gave Anders Ericsson the incentive to continue with this research until 30 years later, he is seen as the preeminent researcher in the field of great performance, calling it “the remarkable potential of ordinary adults and their amazing capacity for change with practice.”

How It Relates to Your Business
Deliberate practice in the development of your business idea is a sure way of pinpointing those skills and outcomes necessary for your enterprise to blossom. There are three general areas that require your attention:
  1. Your personal development using the Life Plan as your guide.
  2. The development of your specific business and building a niche market.
  3. Your business and financial knowledge.

My strongest recommendation is that your business is based upon your passion and in harmony with your personal principles. Once you’ve identified those passions and you’ve begun to narrow the field for the type of business you want to start, it is then time to establish a set of goals in each of the three categories. Keep in mind that one category cannot contradict another. Once these goals are set in writing, take each one, and figure out the skills necessary to meet your goal. Use the three examples from above and copy what works for you.

Memorize the idea that success is a constantly evolving process. What you consider successful today will change tomorrow because standards are upgraded and your customers will demand more. Just consider the personal computer: it costs $5,000 for an office machine with difficult-to-use software in 1980. In 2010, a new personal computer costs as little as $400 including a monitor and a million times more power and usability than its ancestors from the 80s. Your mindset must be constant improvements in your knowledge and in what you offer in your business. As you experience these successes, they will inspire you to continue your improvements. In many cases, the process will be fun and engaging. On the other hand, staying status quo will mean you’re falling behind your competitors and it won’t be long before your business goes down like the others in the 80 percentile.

So remember that a successful business is built on your ability to commit to:
  • A long-term process of constant knowledge and improvements
  • Taking the time to understand which particular practices are necessary to reach your definition of success and defining it above your current standards so that you are reaching higher than ever
  • Doing these deliberate practices repetitiously
  • Embracing failure as an important component of learning to be successful
  • Obtaining constant feedback even if it hurts
  • Realizing that it will always be mentally demanding and even discouraging
  • Working with a “master coach” with decades of experience and practice

1 comment:

  1. Very informative article on mediocrity here. I like to read the good and bad section in this article.
    dean graziosi