Rise to the Top – How to Become the Best at What You Do

In the popular book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, Gladwell writes that:

“for almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes.”

Gladwell writes that we imagine that “achievement is talent plus preparation.”

Right?

Of course, everyone naturally assumes the most successful people we know have some innate talent that allows them to rise above the rest. 

In fact, there are probably lots of successful people who barely had to lift a finger to become as good as they are. They probably were just born that good, and there’s nothing any of the rest of us could do to reach their level with that little effort.

And if we want to become the best at what we do, we should probably have some innate talent too. 

Right? 

However, Gladwell continues that:

“the problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

ln a study done at a music university, in fact, it was found that violin students who truly excelled not only practiced more than the violinists who were just so-so or even merely good, those students actually practiced much, much more. 

While all the violin students had begun taking violin lessons around the age of five, when the students reached around the age of eight, the excelling students ended up practicing more and more than their peers until by the age of twenty, those highly skilled musicians had practiced a total of ten thousand hours each. 

The so-so musical peers? Only practiced approximately four thousand hours each. 

This study has been repeated in a few other scenarios, and the consensus remains the same: Those who rise to the top put in the hours. 

But it’s not just the gifted who rise to the top. It’s not just those who seem to have innate abilities and also put in ten-thousand hours. 

Throughout all these studies, Gladwell writes, they “couldn’t find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.”

That’s an incredibly useful discovery: if you want to be the best violinist, and most likely, if you want to be the best at nearly anything you do, all you have to do is work much, much harder than anyone else. 

Having innate talent won’t get you to the top.

And if you put in those ten thousand hours? You’re practically guaranteed to be at the top. 

Of course, casually putting ten thousand hours into what you do isn’t so simple. But it’s much easier than needing to be born with an innate set of skills. Understanding the principle that all you need to do to become the best at something is put in more time than anyone else gives you something within your control — an action you can take every day to turn yourself into the best at what you do. 

While understanding this concept gives you an immense edge, it certainly doesn’t mean that putting in 10,000 hours is going to be easy. 

In fact, it’s extremely difficult and requires a lot of grit and mental toughness. 

David Goggins, ultramarathon runner, ultra-distance cyclist, triathlete, public speaker, and author, puts it this way in his book, Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds:

“we all make habitual, self-limiting choices. It’s as natural as a sunset and as fundamental as gravity. It’s how our brains are wired…”

Our habits make our lives. 

When we choose not to practice the violin, or whatever our passion may be, we make a choice that’s probably informed by habit. 

We’re used to not doing uncomfortable things. 

Our habit is to avoid

Avoid the anxiety and fear of trying and failing, or trying and never being good enough. 

But as we’ve seen from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, if you continue to practice and put in the time — failure just isn’t possible. 

The only way failure is possible is giving up before you’ve reached your goal. 

If you keep putting in the time, you will rise to the top. 

So instead of letting your fear-based habits affect your actions, it’s important to rewire your brain to have new habits. New routines. New fall-back reactions to difficult situations. 

When things get tough, instead of letting your instant reaction being shirking away, your habit should be to lean forward and continue anyway. 

That is the only way you’ll get in your proverbial 10,000 hours and rise to the top: rewriting your habits. 

In Tony Robbins self-improvement book, he explains that to rewrite your habits, you first need to associate pain, or negative emotions with your old pattern. As humans, we naturally avoid pain and gravitate towards pleasure, so if we associate great negative emotions with our old patterns of behavior, we can change those patterns much easier than through pure force of will. 

The next step, Robbins explains, is to make certain “pleasure is fully associated with the new pattern.” It’s hard to imagine that the violinists who put in 10,000 hours didn’t truly enjoy what they were doing. They probably got excited to sit down and practice for the day. Not enjoying their work would have made getting in those 10,000 hours very difficult. 

But so many of us are too comfortable with our lives. We know we have so much more inside of us, but we choose not to fight against our old patterns, not to change our behaviors, because we’re afraid of going through the discomfort we associate with going through the process of changing our habits. 

Goggins gives a great quote from Heraclitus, a philosopher from the fifth century BCE, that perfectly describes this phenomenon. Heraclitus wrote:

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior…”

Sure, anyone has the option to put in 10,000 hours and succeed far beyond where everyone else does. 

It doesn’t take anything special that you were born with. 

It doesn’t take talent or a “spark.”

It just takes time. 

But it is the rare person who will actually put in that time. Who will stand out as the one among a hundred as exceptional. 

If you want to be the best at what you do, you are going to have to do what no one else will. Those at the top have put in their all. They’ve tried over and over again and gotten back up after failure to try yet again. In fact, failure is not a failure to those who put in 10,000 hours. It’s just a minor setback on their way to 10,000 hours.

So let go of the need to see your success as a linear line moving up and up. You probably won’t see win after win after win. You’ll end up losing sometimes too.

But that doesn’t matter, because your goal should not be to always receive positive feedback or achievement, but simply to put in your hours. And to enjoy it along the way! Put in your 10,000 hours and not rest until you’ve reached where you want to be.

That is the only way to become the best at what you do, to become as Heraclitus says, the one warrior.


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