Secrets of Greatness

None of us become great without hard work. It’s nice to believe that if you find the field where you’re naturally gifted, you’ll be great from day one, but it just doesn’t happen. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

Reinforcing that no-free-lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.

And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, “The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average.” In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years’ experience before hitting their zenith.

So greatness isn’t handed to anyone; it requires a lot of hard work. Yet that isn’t enough, since many people work hard for decades without approaching greatness or even getting significantly better. What’s missing?

For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. That’s the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn’t be rare. Which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. While experts understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, they understand very little about where that behavior comes from.

The authors of one study conclude, “We still do not know which factors encourage individuals to engage in deliberate practice.” Or as University of Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy puts it after 30 years of working with managers, “Some people are much more motivated than others, and that’s the existential question I cannot answer – why.”

The critical reality is that we are not hostage to some naturally granted level of talent. We can make ourselves what we will. Strangely, that idea is not popular. People hate abandoning the notion that they would coast to fame and riches if they found their talent. But that view is tragically constraining, because when they hit life’s inevitable bumps in the road, they conclude that they just aren’t gifted and give up.

Maybe we can’t expect most people to achieve greatness. It’s just too demanding. But the striking, liberating news is that greatness isn’t reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.