Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson were both wrong!

This was first published in Fresh Business Thinking on 25th July 2014.

It’s amazing how many people have a view on greatness and so few have ever achieved it.  Amazon will sell you 3,500 books with ‘greatness’ in the title.  As a business we spend our days helping people raise their performance for the benefit of the business and themselves. What we’ve learnt is that it is both simple and complex.  At the simplistic level there appear to be four key ingredients:

1) Hard work
2) Motivation
3) The genes you were born with
4) Luck

We’ve identified some of the most insightful and accessible books we’ve read on each of these four areas. Each book illustrates the subtlety and complexity behind each of these core areas. So, whilst you are having your well-earned rest this summer, dip into this collection for some inspiration on your return.

Hard work goes a long way.

There is a now famed story told by former champion golfer Gary Player some years ago – that one day whilst practicing some bunker shots on the golf course a man stopped to watch him. Player chipped his first ball up and it ran straight into the hole. The man watching shouted to Player that if he could do it again he’d give him $50.00, Player duly sank the next shot from the bunker. The man then bet him $100.00 that he couldn’t do it a third time but Player holed the ball for three in a row. As the man reached into his pocket for the money he now owed he commented to Player that he’d never before seen anybody get so lucky, to which Player gave is now fabled response, “Well the harder I practice the luckier I seem to get”.

Working hard at what you want to be good at would seem to be an obvious contributory factor to high performance. Malcolm Gladwell (building on Anders Ericsson’s work) makes the point in his 2008 book Outliers, that in order to be ultimately successful in any field it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. And for sure anybody that has risen to the very top in their chosen field will tell you that it required a lot of hard work to get there. Geoff Colvin’s book “Talent is Overrated: What really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” illustrates this point brilliantly.

Born to greatness

But some people work just as hard and just as long yet are never able to perform at those same elevated levels, how come? Thomas Jefferson asserted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that ‘All men are created equal’, he was wrong! Whilst it might be comfortable to believe this, the sad fact is that some of us were created a ‘bit more equal’ than everybody else. For example – without needing to understand the science, most of us are born with equal ratios of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibres, this allows us to do the normal things that we need to do in our lives. It turns out however that the world’s top sprinters consistently have a fast-twitch fibre composition of around 80% whilst distance athletes are normally around 20%. So Usain Bolt was born to run fast whilst Mo Farrah was born to run long distances.

The same phenomenon can be seen in anybody that performs at the very highest level, they were all born with an innate talent or gift that predisposed them to excel at their chosen discipline – Michael Phelps has abnormally long reach, very large feet and extremely flexible joints, all characteristics found in elite swimmers, Matthew Pinsent had his lung capacity measured at 8.5 litres, most men come in somewhere just below 6 litres, Stephen Hawking just ‘gets’ numbers and always did, and it would be difficult to argue that Michael Jackson didn’t have an innate sense of rhythm and timing that helped him to become the performer that he clearly was.  David Epstein’s book “The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success” is a fascinating read on this topic.

The bottom line is this – most of us either don’t have a natural talent (we were born to be also-rans) or we fail to discover it early enough in life. None of this stops us being good at things, but we will never be great.

Some people just want it more than others

It’s also true that some people want success more than others and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices in order to achieve it. The difference between the winners and the losers in this regard might be categorized as motivation – some people are just more motivated than others to reach the top. History is littered with talented individuals that worked hard up to a point and then got sidetracked by something else. Perhaps they were seduced by ‘the good life’, perhaps the going got a little too tough for them as they got closer to the top, or perhaps they just found it difficult to balance the demands of elite performance with family life. Whatever the reason these people identified what was, for them, a higher priority, something that prevented them from realizing their maximum potential.

Of course these people are, by definition, not as well known so it’s difficult to cite examples that we can all relate to. To make the point in a less obvious way let’s take look at Rory McIlroy – he’s one of the world’s top golfers and has been in the news recently for breaking up with his fiancée in order to allow him to focus on his golf. We can argue the rights and wrongs of his decision but at the end of the days it was his decision to make and, harsh though it may seem to some, the decision he made was to put golf above his relationship with his fiancée. He is clearly prepared to make some serious sacrifices in order to achieve the kind of success he desires. History is littered with the immense sacrifices people have made to achieve extraordinary results. Scott’s failed expedition to reach the South Pole as recalled in David Crane’s book “Scott of the Antarctic: The definitive Biography”  is an amazing account of the sacrifices people are prepared to make.

We all need a lucky break

The final part of the formula is luck, so more or less back where we started with Gary Player. However, I’m not talking here about a lucky shot on the golf course or an unlucky bounce of the ball that eludes a waiting goalkeeper and veers into the back of the net, I’m talking about the kind of life-changing moment of pure good fortune that all top performers have had at some point, a moment in their lives that they can all point to and say “Yeah, that was a lucky break for me”.

In his younger years Gordon Ramsay was intent on becoming a professional footballer until an unfortunate injury ended his playing days early and forced him to re-think his career, he chose catering. Steve Redgrave only came to rowing at the age of 16 when he happened to find himself being taught English at school by a teacher who was himself passionate about rowing. And, as an aspiring young actor struggling to make ends meet Harrison Ford would do odd carpentry jobs between auditions, he got his lucky break when he was hired to fit some cabinets at the home of one George Lucas.

So despite what Gary Player may have felt, from time to time people do just get lucky and it’s possibly more important than you might think. According to Richard Wiseman in his book “The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind” there is a lot we can do to create our own luck

What about Albert Einstein?

Einstein said many things, amongst them that “If A equals success, then the formula is A = X + Y + Z where X is work, Y is play and Z is keep your moth shut”

We say if X equals success, then the formula is X = A + B + C + D where A is an innate talent, B is hard work, C is real motivation and D is a lucky break along the way.

Nigel Harrison and Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2014 All rights asserted

If it takes 10,000 hours of practice, it’s vital to keep your people, but will you listen to us?  If you will, read our Career Development case study.