Have you ever watched Tiger Woods swing a golf club? Growing up in Augusta, Georgia, the home of the Masters, spring break aligned with the prestigious annual tournament. But instead of heading to the beach for the week, most teenagers (myself included) signed up for odd jobs at the National. In between shifts of checking in backpacks and umbrellas at the coat-check stand or spreading pimento cheese on soft white sandwich bread at a food tent, you were free to weave into the ticket-carrying crowds and walk the course.
If you’ve ever been to the Caribbean, you’ve likely been startled by the blues of the sea; the grounds of the Augusta National equally stun with shades of green. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone. I wouldn’t exactly describe the town of Augusta as a suburban Southern desert, but the best way I can describe the course is as an oasis.
I’m not even a golf fan, but I’ll never forget that experience — especially because the first year I worked there, 1997, Tiger Woods won his first Green Jacket. And he won it by 12 shots. If that’s not an argument for talent, then I don’t know what is. And yet, research has proven that talent doesn’t come with lightening-strike odds. Bad news for Tiger, good news for you. So how do you get to the top of your game, and can the same strategies propel you in the workplace?
Tapping Tiger-like Talent at Work
One key is deliberate practice. Researchers, most notably Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, have shown that the number of hours (10,000 seems to be key) you devote to deliberate practice—“activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the soul purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance”—seem to predict expert-level results.
While scientists continue to research how Tigers separate themselves from the pack (recent findings show personality, intelligence, and age are also key factors), deliberate practice is still a controllable piece of the equation that you can bring to your career. Here’s how.
DO get a mentor.
In order to improve, you need to have a strategy that’s designed to catapult your current performance. You also need prompt and actionable feedback to move forward.
DON’T move too fast.
You may need training to get you where you want to go—you may even need to go back to school to advance your degree. Know that growing and learning works best when it happens gradually, not in spurts that fizzle out. Master techniques or areas of expertise systematically.
DO put it on repeat.
Even concert pianists practice the same scales and pieces over and over. Stay in touch with basic technologies and the programs that run your field and use them as you move on to more challenging endeavors.
DON'T expect it to be easy.
In fact, deliberate practice is by definition not supposed to be fun. Pinpoint your weaknesses and hone in on them in order to advance. When you get discouraged, just imagine how good it will feel to sink the winning putt, head to the clubhouse to don a Green Jacket —and then do it all again and again, even better than before.