“Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.”
“Thanks for confirming my long-held hypotheses that you know nothing.”
That comment, directed at me recently by a reader of this blog, might be correct. It is indeed possible that I know nothing. And if that’s accepted to be true, it’s worth exploring how this conundrum could be fixed. How does one, if one were so inclined, go about becoming brilliant?
Perhaps the first place to look is the literature. In recent years, two of the most prominent books written on the topic have been Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk, both of which offer similar advice: practice a lot. What makes the best the best is the amount of time they dedicate to honing their craft.
“Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.” So wrote Gladwell while advocating the famous 10,000-hour rule, which quantifies precisely how much effort should be exerted. Shenk concurs: “Talent is not the cause but the result of something,” he writes.
But let’s see what science has to say.
A major experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that brain neurons learn and process information more so from successes than from failures. In other words, it’s not the memory of our mistakes that propels us towards greatness, but the minor accomplishments we have along the way. (Granted, the study was conducted on monkeys.)
Focusing on real people was a meta-analysis at the University of California that scrutinised hundreds of studies which collectively revealed that happiness causes success. Many of us, though, wrongly assume that success causes happiness. Concentrate on being content right now, conclude the authors, and rewards such as work performance should show up in the future.
One of the most prolific researchers on personal development is Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University. Well-known for her work on mindsets, she groups people into two categories. You either have a ‘fixed’ mindset or a ‘growth’ mindset.
The distinction between the two is determined by how you view yourself. Those with a fixed mindset have trouble envisioning their potential for excellence. They believe the skills they have today are the skills they’ll have forever, and so they rarely bother trying to improve.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, have far stronger chances of success because they’re convinced that positive change is possible – even inevitable – and that makes them ask for feedback, seek out learning, and persevere when confronted by adversity.
So what do the motivational gurus think? I sought the wisdom of Dr Jason Fox, who completed his PhD research in motivation science and has developed a theory that associates video games with behavioural change.
“In video games you can only level-up and grow by getting experience points,” he explains. “And you can only get experience points by engaging in challenging work. It's much the same in the real world.”
Presumably, once the challenging work stops, so too does the personal growth. In this insightful video, Dr Fox expands on his analogy to make the assertion that progress is the ultimate motivator for employees, as is the case with gamers.
Anthony Bonnici, from corporate motivation firm Move Mountains, has a somewhat different perspective. He told me that “the key to personal excellence is awareness. Brilliance is achieved when we do something at the height of our attitude and our ability. We cannot get to those lofty heights without first knowing two things: how high we can go and what is in our way.”
What’s in our way, he says, usually has less to do with external factors and more to do with mental blocks that limit our thinking.
Right, then. I better get cracking.
Do you aspire to be brilliant? If so, how do you pursue it? Leave a comment.
Follow James Adonis on Twitter @jamesadonis