Thoughts by Graham Williams on ‘Peak’ – by Ericsson and Pool
‘Peak – how all of us can achieve extraordinary things’ by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool
Peak performance has always fascinated me, not that I am a peak performer. However, having been fortunate to work alongside those that were, from the world of sport and adventure, some of whom were Olympians, a racing driver and polar explorer, it has always intrigued me to discover what is special about them.
I first came across research papers by Anders Ericsson many years ago whilst doing my own research into the effect of beliefs and attitudes on our behaviour, and how it affects our performance at work. Ericsson has spent over 30 years interviewing and analysing high-flying professionals from different fields. He has been looking at the difference between the exceptional and the ordinary performers and the reason that some people achieve amazing things whilst most of us operate in a world where we peak at a level of ‘it’s good enough’.
That ‘good enough’ attitude means that not only will we never achieve our potential in anything we do but many of us will never leave the starting blocks. We end up functioning at work, in other activities and sometimes in life. Consider driving a car. If we believed that we could be good or even great as a driver, and continued to improve through focused practice; the driving standard on our roads would be much higher. Most of us give up focusing on improving our driving shortly after passing our driving test. We just try to drive faster, not better.
It is easier to give up and make the excuse that certain people are natural, are gifted or have a special talent so why bother to try.
Leaders are made not born – do you believe there is a talent or leadership gene?
Peak was published in 2016 and Ericsson and Pool brings Ericsson’s work up to date with many examples. The book explores the power of practice, that of deliberate practice, and of harnessing adaptability. It explores the gold standard and the road to the extraordinary. It also looks at ‘natural talent’ that appears to be a current flavour within many organisations. Why wouldn’t organisations look for natural talent if the majority of staff were just functioning.
Ericsson has stated that when we see an expert exhibit superior performance their behaviour looks so effortless and natural that we have been tempted to attribute it to special talents. Many of us assume that this is an innate talent that a few people have and use to become the best of the best, whilst the rest of us watch.
This natural talent, which we all possess, can be applied across all areas not only in sport, for example in chess, music, research, accountancy, doctors, London taxi drivers and teachers… and more. Ericsson explains that people who are exceptional are in fact no different to anyone else except they put in an inordinate amount of practice. He has suggested that to be an expert each performer commits at least 10,000 hours over 10 years. He explains that just practising is pointless, as many people who practice golf regularly will have discovered, as they never really improve, even with advice from a golf coach. The practice must be deliberate and the focus on something specific at that moment in time.
There is the famous line from the golfer Jack Nicklaus who said to a reporter
“The more I practice the luckier I get…”
So does natural talent really exist according to Ericsson? The answer is NO.
However, having longer legs will be an advantage if you play basketball as will having a small body mass if you are a gymnast, but in general, those people who are exceptional performers have put the hours in to train and they continue to make tiny improvements as they go along. What they all have developed is determination, mental toughness, persistence and dedication and most of that is directed at challenging themselves.
Michelle Griffiths Robinson, Mind Fit Coach and former UK Olympic Triple Jumper said,
“As an elite athlete every day you have to be the best, give your best and travel down a road of uncertainty. Competitions happen weekly but training happens daily and it’s the mind that acts as the biggest competitor as it’s always with you and, without question, is always going to challenge you.”
Her quote clearly shows that to be a peak performer you have to be very committed and the right mindset is the key.
So the question is :
How committed are you to improve and how quickly do you give up?
Of course, most of us need only operate at being good to enjoy ourselves.
A recent article in “The Week” (6 May 2017) explores the urban climbers and freerunners who continue to attempt ever-more dangerous stunts; some for the glory while others seek happiness. They glide, they flow up and across buildings; it all seems effortless as they perform such amazing moves that do not seem possible, leaving the majority of us breathless. What they do not show is the time spent in the gym; time spent getting fitter and stronger, sometimes injured and hundreds of practice jumps while working on a single technique.
And this goes for any top performing sportsperson and as we see regularly on the behind the scenes insights into Formula 1, the driver has a team of 600+ that are all focused on the performance of the car, and hopefully if the driver is on top from, they might win.
People With Talent Stand Out
So talent is really about those few people who are willing to put the effort in and therefore they stand out. They all have a Can-Do attitude, a clear reason for putting that effort in, and in organisations they are willing to act and add value.
The danger for organisations that do focus on talent is that they leave the majority of staff feeling undervalued and therefore disengaged. This is the dark side of talent management. Ignoring the majority who all have the potential is flawed thinking.
What organisations should do is find out why people are not willing to put in the effort to be at least good performers and the answers may not be welcomed. And the reasons are common and have been identified for years. Poor leadership and a lack of support are common. Not tackling bullies, or jobs that are locked into routine systems and processes so that they become boring are common reasons for disengagement.
According to Gallup with disengagement at 87% across the world, something different needs to be done.