How to Achieve Your Personal Best

Is there something you are continually drawn to; something you have always wanted to do, but haven’t had the nerve? Maybe you thought you shouldn’t change careers and follow your lifelong desire to be a history teacher, because you didn’t know if you’d be any good at it. Maybe you thought you weren’t really talented enough to be a musician, or smart enough to be a lawyer, even though that is what your heart was –and still is – calling you to do.

K. Anders Ericsson’s Research Says Do What You Love

You Can Succeed At What you Love to Do! Photo: Anitapeppers,

You Can Succeed At What you Love to Do! Photo: Anitapeppers,

It seems that most people believe that to be great you have to be born great. Not so, says K. Anders Ericsson, editor of the Cambridge University Press, 2006 Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

Ericsson researched the best of the best for 20 years to study their personal development strategies and determine what made them great. He studied:

  • musicians,
  • athletes,
  • medical doctors,
  • authors,
  • chess players,
  • teachers,
  • pilots,
  • mathematicians…

…you name it. He found there was only one factor that predicted greatness across all disciplines, and it is this:

those who excel above the rest are the ones who spend the most time specifically working to stretch themselves to the next level of ability.

I Can Succeed if I Try: Good News or Bad News?

If the idea of working at something to achieve your personal best at it makes you want to curl up in your jammies with the remote control and a bag of chips, you might want to ask yourself whether or not it’s time for a change. Are you pursuing something that really doesn’t interest you, that really doesn’t captivate your heart and soul?

On the other hand, if you’re excited by the idea of pursuing personal growth in a certain endeavor, or there’s something that you feel drawn to, but all those doubts have stood in your way, it may be time to take action now. Your fears may be totally groundless.

Take Michael Jordan, for example. People would say his natural talent, height, or innate physicality are what have made him one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  But the fact is that he was actually cut from his high school basketball team. According to Scott Miller et al. in the December, 2007 Psychotherapy Networker article “Supershrinks,” the image of the team roster posted in the locker room without his name on it was so unacceptable to him that it actually drove him to practice for hours each day just to improve his weak points. You know the rest of the story.

Don’t Clock Time, Stretch Yourself to Improve Your Skills

But let’s be clear: the research doesn’t indicate that simply spending more time at something enhances personal growth or leads to achievement. In fact, many people gain confidence over time in their pursuits and feel as if they are more effective, when the fact is that they have simply become more comfortable, not more effective.

For the time spent practicing to matter, the effort has to be a deliberate practice to stretch oneself beyond where one is yet able to go; to bring one’s skills to the next level that is just out of reach. This is the factor that makes the great ones great.

There are implications here, even for people who don’t desire to be the greatest or the best. What this research uncovers is that people can be what they want to be. Whatever limitations people are born with in the talent department, those limitations do not define them. Working to improve will lead to improvement. Continually working to improve can lead to greatness. Are there any more reasons not to try?

To view or purchase the K. Anders Ericsson book on click here: The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology)

©Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved.  It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work on the web or for profit without written permission from the author. This article was originally published on the web in 2008. Please contact the author for permission.

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