In August I'm speaking at a client's sales conference. On the program is Geoff Colvin. He wrote Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. Geoff asserts that top performers are not determined by DNA, but rather by practice and perseverance. From the book review, "The key is how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness."
I think practice is underrated by some people wishing to achieve mastery. My perspective on that is different from many. I grew up a musician. I practiced the trumpet four to six hours a day from the age of ten. I was playing professionally by nineteen having amassed something like 12,000 hours with that mouthpiece on my lips. I achieved a reasonable degree of mastery, but not enough to make it in the tough New York City recording studio business. I gave up the horn and became a computer programmer.
As some of you know I've gotten back to playing the trumpet after a 32-year hiatus. I've put in a thousand hours or so of practicing during the past two years and finally, it's paying off. I'm starting to sound like a trumpet player again.
Tomorrow I'll be taking my biennial flight review, which is a two- to three-hour session with a flight instructor mandated by the FAA. I've got a 948-page book, all of which I must be, at a minimum, somewhat familiar with. That's an hour or more of discussion on the ground. Then we go flying. I've got to demonstrate enough flying competence to be endorsed by the instructor for another two years. We'll do landings, emergency procedures, stalls, steep turns, recovering from unusual attitudes and other practical exercises which, if performed well, will assure the instructor I'm competent to continue flying.
I've accumulated just under 1,600 hours in the fifteen years I've been flying. Just as a point of reference, very experienced airline pilots can have 12,000 to 20,000 hours. Chesley B. (Sully) Sullenberger has 19,000. I've been a safe, competent pilot. I'd like to believe I've practiced enough to handle myself and my plane in an emergency, but hey, you never know. I've landed 1,765 times. (Precisely equal to the number of times I've taken off.) I can tell you that although I still hit the runway hard once in a while, or misjudge some minor aspect of wind speed or direction, I've now reached the point where almost every landing is very good to perfect. That's 15 years of practicing.
I regularly practice yoga, and writing through some of ESR's work and this blog. I've spent many hours with speaking coaches, being videotaped and painfully observing what others were and would be subjected to. More practice. Delivering a compelling signature story to drive an important point home (skydiving, eating "live" sushi in Tokyo, firewalking, losing electric power in a rented plane over Boston) to an audience of skeptical and sometimes jaded sales-types requires upfront work and ongoing practice.
I feel lucky to have learned that practice doesn't always make perfect, but if you do enough of it the right way, you'll certainly progress in that direction.
Sales leaders need to listen less to their people who tell them they're too experienced to need workshops, role playing, and other individual and team practice sessions. Those salespeople are wrong.
I've worked with sales teams that were required to practice their companies' marketing messages until they could deliver them perfectly. Each salesperson, especially the most experienced ones were delighted to have crossed the divide from winging it to master. Why doesn't every company do that?
Practice pays off. It really does.
What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else
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