Know The System

I am a systems thinker who is dedicated to personal mastery. What does that mean? First let me start by saying I dislike using the verbiage “personal mastery” because it’s overused, been beaten up in the language marketplace, and other sundry things. But it is what it is and the research in the area of talent (and we all know how much I love research) uses that terminology.

Author Peter Senge says, “Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills…it means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint.” Yep, that is me. So I am stuck with personal mastery. I like Senge’s definition but have developed one of my own: personal mastery is about living in the 20 percent 80 percent of the time. Here are some 20% statistics for you (many of them from The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving more with Less by Richard Koch)

•       Approximately 20% of leaders make the most money for their organizations and for themselves (and conversely, 20% of leaders cost their organizations money)

•       Approximately 20% of people are truly happy

•       Approximately 20% of people are wealthy

•       Approximately 20% of businesses excel at what they do

•       Approximately 20% of athletes in the Olympics win medals

So the questions I had to ask myself are, “Am I in the elite 20% in my field?”, “Do I excel at what I do?” and “If I’m not in the 20%, how do I get there?” Years of research validates that personal mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice!  Not just any practice, but deliberate or deep practice, which is a highly specialized form of practice. Also, it requires a special program that immerses you in the skill set (like an elite soccer club or a profound coach). Check out the books The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated for in-depth explanations of these concepts. 

Talent research uncovered what is called The Ten-Year Rule, which dates back to 1899. The rule states that world class expertise in every domain (violin, math, chess and so on) requires roughly a decade of committed practice – the 10,000 hours! So I had to ask myself another question, “Does 10,000 hours get me in the 20% I want to be in?” Attorneys usually don’t become partners in law firms until they have been practicing about 7 or 8 years. Why? For the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Medical doctors usually have to specialize in a particular field and do a residency in that specialization. Why? For the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Why are prodigies prodigies? Research shows that prodigies like master musicians and elite athletes practiced longer hours at an earlier age. Thus, they are prodigies because they earned their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice faster than the average bear.

Yet, The Ten-Year Rule presented a challenge for me. One of my top five values is effectiveness. That means I want to do things quickly, efficiently, and correctly. The first time. I don’t want to spend all day on it, much less 10 years! So that moved me to my next question: “Am I doomed to mediocrity if I don’t have my 10,000 hours?” Of course not! What my own research uncovered, as my value of effectiveness drove me to find a way around The Ten-Year Rule, is that there are 2 ways to circumvent the 10,000 hours. First, if you have a rage to master your field, you can circumvent The Ten-Year Rule. Second, knowing the system allows you to circumvent The Ten-Year Rule.

What is the rage to master? In short, it is passion to improve in your chosen field. Author Daniel Coyle stated that not many people “possess an innate, obsessive desire to improve – what psychologist Ellen Winner calls ‘the rage to master’… these sort of self-driven deep practicers are rare and are blazingly self-evident. (A rule of thumb: if you have to ask whether your child possesses the rage to master, he doesn’t).”

A prime example of the rage to master: Former NBA Basketball player and Wake Forest University stand-out Tim Duncan. Here are some well-known facts about Duncan (thanks Wikipedia): (1) Duncan started out as a swimmer. (2) He dreamt of becoming an Olympic-level swimmer like his sister but abandoned swimming after Hurricane Hugo destroyed the only Olympic-sized pool close to his home. (3) Apparently, swimming in the ocean with the sharks did not inspire Duncan. (4) So he turned to basketball in ninth grade.

By ninth grade, most basketball players are already playing on elite teams and have already been watched by scouts. Because he was passionate about the game, he excelled quickly. Duncan possessed an innate, obsessive desire to improve. He is a self-driven deep practicer. And he is most certainly rare and blazingly self-evident. How do I know this? Duncan was an unprecedented three-time defensive player of the year while at Wake Forest University. In 1996 Duncan led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots. He was the first player in conference history to lead all four of those categories. When he was awarded his scholarship to Wake Forest University, in the elite ACC, he had been playing basketball intensely for only about four years, clearly besting The Ten-Year Rule by six years.

So yes, you can circumvent the 10,000 hours by possessing the rage to master. But what if I don’t possess this innate, obsessive desire to improve? Don’t worry! Just learn the system. And that led me to systems thinking.

Everything in life is a system with leverage points and structural conflicts.  Leverage points are gas pedals – forces within the system that can accelerate your growth, productivity and advancement within the system. Structural conflicts are forces within the system that work to nail your foot to the floor where you are. Knowing the system allows you to circumvent the 10,000 hour requirement. Am I sure about that? Yes. Just ask author Tim Ferriss.

Tim Ferriss wrote the bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek. Part of his story is that he won the gold medal at the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships in 1999 - on a dare  - after four weeks of preparation. He won by reading the rules and looking for loopholes. Of which there were two. Loophole one: Weigh-ins were the day prior to competition. Using dehydration techniques, Ferriss lost 28 pounds in 8 hours and weighed in at 165 pounds. He then hydrated back to 193 pounds (all of this was medically supervised). Implication: It’s hard to fight someone from three weight classes above you.

Loophole Two: There was a technicality in the fine print. If one combatant fell off the elevated platform three times in a single round, his opponent won by default.  Implication: Ferriss used this technicality as his single technique. He simply pushed his opponents off the platform. The results of understanding the system and using the two leverage points found in the rules:

·       Ferriss won all of his matches by technical knock-out.

·       He went home national champion, achieving what 99% of those with 5-10 years experience couldn’t.

So, yes, knowing the system allows you to circumvent the 10,000 hours.  Expedite your journey to personal mastery by finding the gas pedals in the system that are the winning ways!  

Busy systems thinking my way to a more effective world,

Dr. Tomi