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Lessons on Success and Deliberate Practice From Mozart, Picasso, and Kobe Bryant

Lessons on Success and Deliberate Practice From Mozart, Picasso, and Kobe Bryant

How long does it take to become elite in your industry? What do the people who master their goals do differently than the rest of us?

That’s what John Hayes, a cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wanted to know.

For decades, Hayes has been investigating the role of effort, practice, and knowledge in top performers. He has studied the most talented creators in history–people like Mozart and Picasso–to determine how long it took them to become world class at their craft. Furthermore, he investigated the choices and experiences that have led to their success.

Let’s talk about what Hayes has discovered about world class performers and, more importantly, let’s discuss how you can use these insights to achieve your goals and become your best.

Ten years of silence

Hayes started his research by examining successful composers. He analyzed thousands of musical pieces produced between the years of 1685 to 1900. The central question that drove his work was, “How long after one becomes interested in music is it that one becomes world class?”

Eventually, Hayes developed a list of 500 pieces that were played frequently by symphonies around the world and were considered to be the “masterworks” in the field. These 500 popular pieces were created by a total of 76 composers.

Next, Hayes mapped out the timeline of each composer’s career and calculated how long they had been working before they created their popular works. What he discovered was that virtually every single “masterwork” was written after the tenth year of the composer’s career. (Out of 500 pieces there were only three exceptions, which were written in years eight and nine.)

Not a single person produced incredible work without putting in a decade of practice first. Even a genius like Mozart had to work for at least 10 years before he produced something that became popular. Professor Hayes began to refer to this period, which was filled with hard work and little recognition, as the “ten years of silence.”

In followup studies, Hayes found similar patterns among famous painters and popular poets. These findings have been further confirmed by research from professors like K. Anders Ericsson, who produced research that revealed that you needed to put in 10,000 hours to become an expert in your field. (This idea was later popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.)

However, as Hayes, Ericsson, and other researchers started digging deeper, they discovered that time was merely one part of the equation. Success wasn’t simply a product of 10 years of practice or 10,000 hours of work. To understand exactly what was required to maximize your potential and master your craft, you had to look at how the best performers practiced.

The practice habits of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant provide a perfect example.

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How Kobe Bryant made it to the top

Kobe Bryant is one of the most successful basketball players of all time. The winner of five NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals, Bryant has amassed a net worth of more than $200 million during his playing career.

In 2012, Bryant was selected as a member of Team USA. During this time, one of the athletic trainers for Team USA, a man named Robert, was working with Kobe to prepare for the Olympics. In the story below, which was previously published on Reddit, Robert describes his first experience with Kobe and reveals one of the reasons the superstar has become so successful.

From Robert, trainer for Team USA:

I was invited to Las Vegas to help Team USA with their conditioning before they headed off to London. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in the past, but this would be my first interaction with Kobe.

The night before the first scrimmage, I had just watched “Casablanca” for the first time and it was about 3:30 AM.

A few minutes later, I was in bed, slowly fading away, when I heard my cell ring. It was Kobe. I nervously picked up.

“Hey, uhh, Rob, I hope I’m not disturbing anything right?”

“Uhh, no. What’s up Kob?”

“Just wondering if you could help me out with some conditioning work, that’s all.”

I checked my clock. 4:15 AM.

“Yeah sure, I’ll see you in the facility in a bit.”

It took me about twenty minutes to get my gear and get out of the hotel. When I arrived and opened the room to the main practice floor, I saw Kobe. Alone. He was drenched in sweat as if he had just taken a swim. It wasn’t even 5:00 AM.

We did some conditioning work for the next hour and fifteen minutes. Then, we entered the weight room, where he would do a multitude of strength training exercises for the next 45 minutes. After that, we parted ways. He went back to the practice floor to shoot. I went back to the hotel and crashed. Wow.

I was expected to be at the floor again at about 11:00 AM.

I woke up feeling sleepy, drowsy, and pretty much every side effect of sleep deprivation. (Thanks, Kobe.) I had a bagel and headed to the practice facility.

This next part I remember very vividly. All of the Team USA players were there. LeBron was talking to Carmelo and Coach Krzyzewski was trying to explain something to Kevin Durant. On the right side of the practice facility Kobe was by himself shooting jumpers.

I went over to him, patted him on the back and said, “Good work this morning.”

“Huh?”

“Like, the conditioning. Good work.”

“Oh. Yeah, thanks Rob. I really appreciate it.”

“So when did you finish?”

“Finish what?”

“Getting your shots up. What time did you leave the facility?”

“Oh, just now. I wanted 800 makes. So yeah, just now.”

For those of you keeping track at home, Kobe Bryant started his conditioning work around 4:30 a.m., continued to run and sprint until 6, lifted weights from 6 to 7, and finally proceeded to make 800 jump shots between 7 and 11 a.m.

Oh yeah, and then Team USA had practice.

It’s obvious that Kobe is getting his 10,000 hours in, but there is another part of his story that is even more important.

The importance of deliberate practice

Kobe isn’t merely showing up and practicing a lot. He is practicing with purpose.

Kobe had a very clear goal at practice: 800 made jump shots. He was deliberately focused on developing the skill of making baskets. The time he spent doing it was almost an afterthought. That sounds simple, but it’s very different from how most of us approach our work each day.

When most people talk about working hard, they use the amount of time they worked as an indicator of how hard they worked (i.e. “I worked 60 hours this week!”).

Putting in a lot of time might make you tired, but simply working a lot (even if it’s 10,000 hours over the course of your career) isn’t enough to make you a top performer. It’s not the same thing as practicing deliberately. Most people who think they are working hard are merely developing the skill of being in the gym, not the skill of making baskets.

To keep this basketball analogy going, consider this quote from Aubrey Daniels about deliberate practice:

Consider the activity of two basketball players practicing free throws for one hour. Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?

Each player in the example above could brag about practicing for one hour, but only one of them is practicing deliberately.

Researchers have noted that top performers in every industry are committed to deliberate practice. The best artists, musicians, athletes, CEOs, and entrepreneurs don’t merely work a lot, they work a lot on developing specific skills. For example, Jerry Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” strategy is all about deliberately practicing the skill of writing jokes.

Applying deliberate practice to your life

Mozart has been called the “genius of geniuses” and even he toiled away for 10 years before producing popular work. I don’t know about you, but I find this inspiring.

I don’t have the natural talent of Kobe Bryant or the sheer brilliance of Mozart, but I’m willing to put in my “10 years of silence.” I’ve only been writing on this site for nine months, but I see this as the beginning of a 30-year project. And because I’m in this for good, I can win with commitment, grit, and unwavering consistency.

You can take the same approach to your work, to your goals, and to your legacy. By combining these two ideas–the consistency of “10 years of silence” and the focus of “deliberate practice”–you can blow past most people.

On a daily basis, this doesn’t have to look big or impressive. And that’s good, because it will often feel like you’re failing. What feels like struggle and frustration is often skill development and growth. What looks like little pay and no recognition is often the price you have to pay to discover your best work. In other words, what looks like failure is often the foundation of success.

Thankfully, just one hour of focus and deliberate practice each day can deliver incredible results over the long run. And that brings us to the most important questions of all:

Are you working toward your 10 years of silence today? Are you deliberately focused on developing your skills? Or are you simply “putting in your time” and hoping for the best?

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: John Wall, Kobe Bryant/Alexandra Walt via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on March 31, 2020

How To Break the Procrastination Cycle

How To Break the Procrastination Cycle

How often do you find yourself procrastinating? Do you wish you could procrastinate less? We all know how debilitating procrastination can make us feel, and it seems to be a challenge we all share. Procrastination is one of the biggest hindrances to moving forward and doing the things that we want to in life.

There are many reasons why you might be procrastinating, and sometimes, it is really difficult to pinpoint why. You might be procrastinating because of something related to the past, present, or future (they are all intertwined), or it could be as simple as biological factors. Whatever the reason, most of us follow a cycle when we procrastinate, from the moment we decide to do something to actually getting it done, or in this case, not getting it done.

The Vicious Procrastination Cycle

For some reason, it helps to understand that we all go through the same thing, even though we often feel like the only person in the world who struggles with this. Do you resonate with the cycle below?

1. Feeling Eager and Energized

This is when you commit to taking a new action or getting something done. You are feeling confident and optimistic that, this time round, you will do it!

2. Apprehension Starts to Come Up

The beginning stages of optimism are starting to fade. There is still time, but you haven’t done anything yet, and you start to feel uneasy. You realize that you actually have to do something to get it done, and that good intentions are not enough.

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3. Still No Action

More time has passed. You still haven’t taken any action and probably have a lot of excuses why. You start to panic a little and wish you had started sooner. Your panic starts to turn into frustration and perhaps even irritability.

4. Flicker of Hope Left

You can still make it; there is a little time left and you ponder how you are going to get it done. The rush you get from leaving your task until the last minute gives you a flicker of hope. There is still time; you can do this!

5. Fading Quickly

Your hope starts to quickly fade as you try desperately to understand why you just can’t do this. You may feel desperate and have thoughts like, “What is wrong with me?” and “Why do I ALWAYS do this?” You feel discouraged, or perhaps angry and resentful at yourself.

6. Vow to Yourself

Once the feeling of anger or disappointment disappears, you most likely swear to yourself that this will never happen again; that this was the last time and next time will be different.

Does this sound like you? Is the next time different? I understand the devastating effect that procrastination has on many lives, and for some, it is a really serious problem. You also have, on the other hand, those who procrastinate but it doesn’t affect them in any way. You know whether it is affecting you or not and whether it undermines your results.

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How to Break the Procrastination Cycle

Unless you break the cycle, you will keep reinforcing it!

To break the cycle, you need to change the sequence of events. Here is my suggestion on how you can effectively break the vicious cycle you are in!

1. Feeling Eager and Energized

This is when you commit to taking a new action or getting something done. You are feeling confident and optimistic that, this time round, you will do it! The first stage is always the same.

2. Plan

Thinking alone will not help; you need to plan your actions. I always put my deadlines one or two days in advance because you know Murphy’s Law! Take into consideration everything that you need to do, how long it will take you, and what you will need to get it done, then plan the individual steps.

3. Resistance

Just because you planned doesn’t mean that this time is guaranteed to be different. You will most likely still feel the resistance so expect this. This stage is key to identifying why you are procrastinating, so when you feel the resistance, try to identify it immediately.

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What is causing you to hesitate in this moment? What do you feel?  Write them down if it helps.

4. Confront Those Feelings

Once you have identified what could possibly be holding you back, for example, fear of failure, lack of motivation, etc. You need to work on lessening the resistance.

Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to move forward? What would make it easier?” If you find that you fear something, overcoming that fear is not something that will happen overnight — keep this in mind.

5. Put Results Before Comfort

You need to keep moving forward and put results before comfort. Take action, even if it is only for 10 minutes. The key is to break the cycle and not reinforce it. You have more control that you think.

6. Repeat

Repeat steps 3-5 until you achieve what you first set out to do.

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Final Thoughts

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and if you have some deeper underlying reasons why you procrastinate, it may take longer to finally break the cycle.

If procrastination is holding you back in life, it is better to deal with it now than to deal with the negative consequences later on. It is not a question of comfort anymore; it is a question of results. What is more important to you?

Learn more about how to stop procrastinating here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

Featured photo credit: Luke Chesser via unsplash.com

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