Secrets of Greatness

Below is a link to a past Fortune Magazine article that discusses the topic of greatness.

Secrets of Greatness

Within the article, the author shares what he believes are the secrets to greatness. A few excerpts are highlighted below:

You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that’s demanding and painful.

He goes on to say:

The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without 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 doesn’t happen. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

He continues by discussing a particular type of practice:

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s an activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.

The author concludes by explaining (in his opinion) why many do not find greatness.

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.

My Thoughts

I agree with much of what the author has stated above, and I make this statement with the realization that certain individuals are more naturally gifted than others. It’s also worth noting that certain traits are fixed regardless of effort. For example, no matter how hard I work, I’ll never become a 7 foot tall basketball player. Yet despite these facts, there are many more people who have (or had) more potential than they ever realized.

In many cases, this is an opinion (or truth) that is hard to swallow. No one wants to admit that they didn’t work hard enough, or perhaps they didn’t work smart enough. Many people take comfort in believing that they didn’t have the genes to be successful.  But let’s not attack these people…

Many who live with these beliefs were often led to believe this way. Some are surrounded by naysayers, and others are misled by so-called authorities. Just look at the marketing tactics of many fitness establishments. They promise the world with just 20 minutes of exercise each day. People buy into these marketing campaigns and then do not understand why they fall short of their expectations. The truth doesn’t sell. No one wants to hear that they will need to bust their ass for years if they wish to become great at anything. Consequently, large groups of people end up believing that they didn’t have what it takes. These are often the same people who sling mud at others who have become more successful.

If you don’t believe me, head over to Youtube and look through the comments of almost any impressive physical feat. It will take but a few seconds to find armchair quarterbacks dismissing the ability of others. These people believe that anyone who is stronger or more talented than them must be taking drugs or have freak-like genetics. They conveniently glance over the years of hard work that came before such feats were performed. They need to hear that famous line from A Few Good Men

You can’t handle the truth!

The truth is that being great at anything often means you’ll need to work harder than you could ever imagine, and then repeat this process year after year.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone can be great at anything. I do however believe that most of us have the potential to be great at something if we so choose. One must realize though that the choice to be great is often filled with sacrifice. The amount of sacrifice is often more than most are willing to make. No one can be forced to put forth such an effort (hence the importance of passion).

I’m not afraid to admit that earlier in my life, I didn’t live up to my potential. Not even close. I didn’t take the training serious enough and made many poor decisions outside of the gym. I can’t blame anyone or anything, other than myself of course. You won’t find me moping about the past however. Sure, I wish I knew what I know now, but life goes on. I made mistakes and I’ve learned from them.

I’m not here to tell you to stop enjoying your life and dedicate every waking hour to achieving greatness. I’m simply telling those who are interested that if you want to be great at something, you probably have a better chance at achieving it than you (and others around you) may realize. In many ways, it does boil down to just how bad you want it. No one wants to admit that their own definition of hard work may fall short of others. Different people push themselves harder than others, and different people work smarter than others. To hear someone say that they worked as hard as they could doesn’t mean a whole lot. There is no single definition for hard work. We all have unique interpretations.

I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve seen novice boxers enter the gym who appeared to have the coordination of a puppet with broken strings. Some of these fighters proved me and everyone else wrong however. They may not have had the natural ability of others, but they made up for it with relentless desire and dedication.

I’ve also seen top level athletes struggle with basic tasks (from other sports), which indicates that their coordination and ability are specific to the tasks that they have repeatedly practiced over many years. For example, I played basketball with a top ranked fighter who recently fought on a major pay-per-view bout. Inside the ring, the fighter moves around with grace and balance. He’s got all the moves of a natural. On the basketball court however, he looked like the kid that no one would pick in gym class. He couldn’t hit the backboard, never mind make a basket. He moved like he had three left feet and dribbled the ball like he was handcuffed. I couldn’t believe he was the same person who moved around the ring so gracefully. Therefore, hard work and specific work is clearly important.

Educated work is also important, which is where good coaching comes into play. One great example of this concept comes from Roy Jones Sr. (often known as Big Roy). Most will recognize the name based on his son’s achievement as a boxer, but very few realize the work that his son went through as a youngster. Not only did he work extremely hard, but he also had a knowledgeable boxing coach at his side since the day he was born. Roy Jones Jr. was pushed to the extreme day after day throughout his entire childhood. The work was hard, but he also had top level coaching (smart work).

Most consider Roy Jones a natural, but few realize that his father developed four champions from scratch, meaning that these four people started boxing with him. Derrick Gainer, Roy Jones Jr., Vince Phillips, and Arthur Williams all became champions. These were unique athletes with unique styles and abilities. It wasn’t as if one style was forced on each athlete. Big Roy developed these champions, which highlights the importance of good coaching. It’s also worth noting that Pensacola, FL is not a huge city.

I was fortunate to visit the home of Roy Jones Sr. several years ago with John Scully (who had trained with Roy previously). The fact that 4 champions came from this small country environment certainly points to the effectiveness of Big Roy’s ability as a trainer. We arrived at his home one evening to find him coaching a group of amateur fighters in his driveway. This is the same home where Roy grew up and trained. Big Roy drills the fighters repeatedly, pushing them to their limits. Going through this day after day for every day of your life validates much of what the Fortune Magazine article suggests.

I’m not suggesting that Roy Jones Jr. didn’t have natural abilities, but I believe it is safe to say that he wouldn’t have become the fighter he was (in his prime) if he grew up elsewhere. This same phenomenon can also be seen on a smaller scale. For example, in my state of Connecticut, there are a few towns and cities that always have good football teams. It isn’t as if certain geographic locations are more likely to develop football specific genetics. There is much more to the development of talent than pure genetic makeup. The same is true for other sports as well. Back in my day, amateur boxing was much more popular than it is today. There were many gyms in this small state. Certain gyms and trainers always had good fighters however. If you fought in a tournament, you knew which areas to look out for. Certain trainers put out good fighters year after year. It wasn’t as if they had a better genetic pool to choose from. Good trainers know how to get the most out of their athletes.

Final Thoughts

Greatness is a complex subject. There are not specific rules, and many factors contribute. Hard work is imperative. Good coaching is also critical. Individual factors must also be considered (including patience and passion).

And yes, I do believe that there are natural athletes, but I also believe that many have more potential than they realize. There is a large middle area where athletes have the potential to become special (at certain tasks) if they choose. It will not be easy, and many sacrifices must be made along the way. This journey isn’t one that lasts a few weeks. More often than not, it is one that takes many long years of hard work.

No one should be forced to travel this road, but if it is what you truly desire, you must know what you will face. The industry as a whole needs to stop sugarcoating the truth. Greatness doesn’t happen because you buy a book, follow a certain routine, or lift a particular piece of equipment. Countless factors contribute on the long and arduous road to the top.

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  1. Ross, was that article by or about Ericsson, the Swedish “expertise expert?”

    I also agree with his analyses, but there are so many things that go into becoming great at something. And “genius” is another matter entirely.

    Also, your RSS feed is broken!

  2. Ross, not quite athletics, but I saw the Mark Twain award honoring the late George Carlin, and several people mentioned how diligent he was about his work and how hard he worked. And I just thought he was naturally a funny guy. That is part of the puzzle. It seems that greatness comes from hard work and then the person perfoming makes it look so easy that it is hard for those looking on to realize that hard work was behing that performance (athletic, artistic, etc.)

  3. Ross, Those are good insights to greatness. when I started amatuer boxing I was 21 years old and fighting super heavy weight it wasn’t pretty. My first day in the ring ever my nose got broke and I got hit so hard with a left hook my mouth piece flew out of the ring and across the gym (tough to chew for the next three days). But I kept working, everyone told me I was nuts. Two years latter I won my first state golden gloves title, Stopped the guy in the second round with body shots. What a great feeling. That’s why you work day in and day out just to get that simple sweet taste of victory so few people have ever had the privilage of acheiving. You have an awesome site keep up the great work.

  4. You have a very SOBER view of the whole topic of achieving greatness, no doubt a result of a mature mind (at least more mature than mine lol) This is a very refreshing change in the way this topic is handled.

    And as far as deliberate practice goes – I used to suck at basketball.

    However, I made my high school junior varsity because I developed an accurate jump shot with a deliberate practice every day during the summer before junior year. I strove to raise my % each day…


  5. Ross:

    Like I do with many of your posts, I forwarded a link to many of my friends. Perseverance over talent. It’s been my motto – perhaps due to a dearth of talent – but it’s right on!

    Thanks for the encouragement. Keep it up!

  6. Hey Ross!!! It’s your Boy Chuck!!!

    Man this was a great article Ross! I’m glad we have someone like you to remind us on a daily basis what hard work and dedication is all about. Ross i can’r say enough good things about you and your site. Keep the great stuff coming. We all love it man !!!

  7. Fantastic referenced article and phenomenal post on your part. There’s no cutting corners and it’s all about passion and heart. I can dig that.

  8. Thanks man, the motivation i was looking for these last days!! Is something i believe in but at the same time something that i should remember more often.

  9. Good article!

    I don’t gainsay anything you’ve said here, I just have a few additional thoughts.

    The concept of the bell curve applies to everything from shoe size to height to IQ. There is a large middle ground as you mention where certain people from the centre of the Bell curve can, providing they are in the right environment, go on to achieve above average results. ‘As the twig is bent, so grows the tree’ – it’s the old nature vs. nurture debate. Howard Gardner’s theory which states that intelligence is divided into 8 categories: words, music, numbers, space, self, people, body/movement, nature – might apply also here.

    Greatness is nice but there is another ‘ness’ that’s worth a mention also, and that’s, happiness. John Wooden, who is considered by some to be the best and most successful basketball coach in American collegiate history, stressed that in his teachings.

    Lastly, I think its ok to comment on others who have taken steroids to enhance their ability as long as the person doing the commenting isn’t doing it for the wrong reasons (e.g. using it as a cop out etc) I once heard a very experienced and reputable boxing coach comment that it was ‘ok to use steroids as long as the boxer ‘works the drug’ and not the other way around’. My opinion is that the sporting realm acts as a microcosm and is reflective of the much larger social stratosphere and unfortunately drugs of all kinds are rife within both environments.

  10. Hi,

    again a very late response. I want to throw in some names:

    Benjamin Franklin and his 13 virtues
    Theodore Roosevelt who build himself from the scratch
    Hemingway who studied what today is known as “The great western books”
    Albert Einstein who has a E in math in his school time. Just his absolute interest in physics brought him to greatness.

    I absolutely agree with this. But i find it hard to really work on it, with so many distractions today and i try to “level up” everyday a little bit more.

    In my opinion todays youth or even grown ups are working a lot less than our grandfather genereation. So I was always wondering why they achieved so much more than todays average person. I think in our “decadent” time we forgot about the deliberate practice. And even if you want to work hard on yourself it is quite difficult to find a appropiate mentor. For eg in my Job the pepole who could teach me important things always saying “take your time” “dont overdo it” “dont work too much” which i cannot understand when im working 3 hours a day consolidated.

    But thats just my opinion.

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