My children are about to start their junior year in high school. Yesterday my daughter came to me; she was troubled by thoughts that she would not be academically successful this year. She is taking three advanced placement classes and the rest are honors courses. In addition, she feels the pressure of achieving high scores on her upcoming standardized tests such as the PSAT and SAT.
I asked her if she’d ever heard the saying “that 90% of life is showing up.” She said she had, but added, she didn’t understand what it meant.
Reflecting on the transition from freshman year to sophomore year, she had been surprised by the increase in workload and by the number of her friends whose class standing dropped precipitously. “What characteristic,” I asked, “did these free-falling students share?” She smiled. She understood that those who were high-honors freshmen but fell below the honor’s bar as sophomores had ability. They simply did not value doing the extra work required of them to maintain their high academic standing as sophomores.
My daughter began to relax; she saw her fate was in her hands. Almost certainly, I explained, she would have to do more work than in her sophomore year. But the good news was that if she did that work she would almost certainly succeed. I encouraged her to fully surrender to the process and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from that.
At the legendary Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, each student must sign a statement that reads in part: “Every endeavor pursued with passion produces a successful outcome regardless of the result. For it is not about winning or losing — rather, the asset put forth in producing the outcome.” Yet, practice “pursued with passion” often produces results; and graduates of Bollettieri’s academy include a virtual who’s who of tennis champions.
The irony is that often those who believe winning is everything are not prepared to expend the effort it takes to win. They believe that those who win do so because they are lucky or because they have prodigious talent. Fear of failure is the opposite side of the same coin as believing winning is everything. And often, those who fear failure do not show up and make an effort.
Psychologist Anders Ericsson is considered the world’s foremost expert on the causes of outstanding performances. Ericsson’s research shows that in all fields of endeavor, it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to be a world-class performer. For example, he found that by the age of 20, the best violinist in the world had practiced at least 10,000 hours; while those aiming for careers as music teachers had practiced, on average, 4000 hours.
Ericsson’s findings were without exception: He found no world-class performers who had practiced less than 10,000 hours. And, everyone who had practiced 10,000 hours had reached elite status. Ericsson wrote, “We deny that these differences [in outcome and skill level]…are due to innate talent.”
Ericsson’s extensive research has been popularized in many fine books including Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Bounce by Matthew Syed; yet, many are skeptical. It seems that the mindset that some of us are more special than others is a hard one to overcome. That mindset results in celebrity worship and in living one’s own life without activating the potential within.
Why would anyone make such a choice? Human beings want to believe in their own specialness—even if their own specialness is a story of lack and victimization. We don’t want to hear that we are fundamentally all the same; we don’t want to hear that the only thing standing between us and mastery is long hours of practice.