Do you know who this man is?
He is perhaps the world’s foremost and highest-paid expert on finding fun in everyday minutia. Every week, he performs in front of as many as 20,000 people in order to test his material. These performances are not his full-time job. He still calls former high school teachers and classmates to test his material on them. He arrives at the job an hour before anyone else and often works up to 18 hours a day. He spends at least 6 hours a day writing material that will take 10 minutes to perform. At age 59, he still runs 4 miles a day. When he was a younger man, to perfect his craft, he performed 300 or more days a year, on the road, and often in obscure venues.
The man is Jay Leno. When you read the article about Jay Leno and his new prime-time show in the Wall Street Journal it is hard not to see the connection between practice and success. Although Jay Leno is talented, if he was not willing to practice his craft, few of us would have heard of him. In the universe of funny men and women, only a few are willing to make the sacrifices that Leno has made, and still makes, to be successful. Yes, Jay Leno is talented; but talent is mere potential until it is developed through effort; few are willing to make the effort.
A regime of what researchers call deliberate practice (see here) has a big side benefit: it cultivates resiliency. Faced with a difficult challenge, you know you can work through it; your experience with deliberate practice proves this to you. The resilience you cultivate feeds back to help sustain a rigorous practice regime. The natural human resiliency Leno has cultivated is available to everyone; a person with a fixed mindset (see here) would give up when the work is hard. Audiences can be tough; Leno has surely been on the receiving end of nervous laughter, blank stares, and heckling. Yet, he gets up, dusts himself off, and goes back for more the next day.
You should be at least slightly unsettled by the Jay Leno story. Don’t many of us dismiss our own average performance with the simple explanation that only some people have God-given gifts? Now, it is true that you need a certain level of talent, not to mention interest, to reach the success of a Jay Leno. It is also true that the universe is populated with many more potential Jay Lenos than we care to admit.
Most of us will never achieve success equivalent to that of Jay Leno. There is nothing wrong with that; 18 hour days would not lead to a balanced life for me. (Of course, I would never assume to judge what is right for Jay Leno.) But, the Leno story helps you ask this question: What would careful cultivation of my own craft, according to the principles of deliberate practice, mean for me? You may find success you never dreamed of; you may accomplish goals you thought were beyond you.
Yet, most people do not employ deliberate practice. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes:
Extensive research in a wide range of field shows that many people not only failed to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started. Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud… surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were… in field after field… people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience…Managers with experience did not produce high-caliber outcomes.
Indeed, if you don’t practice, you might be left behind. Rapidly rising standards are the norm in every field. Did you know, for example, that many high school athletes running the 200-meter can easily beat the 1908 Olympic gold medal winning time?
I have no personal knowledge of what motivates Jay Leno. Perhaps it is the huge financial rewards he receives (about $30 million a year), perhaps he loves perfecting his craft, or perhaps he hears the footsteps of young comics gaining on him. If he is like most individuals, he is motivated by a combination of factors such as these.
Put these two ideas together: Practice trumps talent. And, competition motivates us to perform at a higher level. Together these ideas shed light on why some people behave as they do in response to the market’s demand for continual improvement. Some people seek a way out; they seek to prevent competition. For example, in education, teacher unions prevent the unmotivated and incompetent from being fired. These same unions lobby against charter schools which would introduce competitive pressure.
Those teachers who are unmotivated to practice do tremendous damage to themselves and to our children! Yes, they hurt themselves too. In their desire to be slackers, they destroy their chance for happiness. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his classic essay “Self-Reliance” taught the truth: “…No kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
As we rush to socialize more of the American economy there will be tremendous costs; not the least of those costs will be an increase in the number of slackers. Society will lose the benefit of precious human energy that goes untapped. For the slackers of the world, more government is their best hope. They lie to themselves: They pretend they are deserving of the special privileges and subsidies bestowed by government. They tell themselves they have much talent but the unfair world doesn’t recognize or reward them for it. The world may not recognize or reward their talent for a variety of reasons; often it is simply because they don’t practice it. Without practice, talent is mere potential. Practice trumps talent.