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Erik Calonius guest posts on Greatness and Luck

Guest posts

Today’s article is a guest post from Former Wall Street Journal and Fortune writer Erik Calonius, whose book Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of Us you’ll hear more about here in the near future. You might also be interested in reading his post on Jonathan Field’s blog, “What Lucky People Do Different,” which I recommended here about a month back. You can find out more about Erik at his Web site,

I saw a lot of wisdom in Randall Munroe’s XKCD cartoon strip (May 16 post)—the one where Marie Curie is telling Nobel Prize wanna-bes, “You don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

In our instant gratification society, too many people just want to be great. They don’t want to take the long, often-lonely journey to get there. They want to be a movie star, not an actor; an American Idol, not a singer; the next blockbuster novelist (interviewed on Oprah), not a writer.

These frothy ambitions are not restricted to the arts. I recently had dinner with two senior research scientists from Bell Labs. Bell Labs, you may remember, is the research lab that produced the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system. Among its many notable scientists, seven of them went on to win Nobel Prizes. So did these senior researchers (that I had lunch with) want to be great, too, with their pictures placed prominently on the walls at Bell Labs? Of course. Who wouldn’t?

People have always wanted to be great (that’s why Alexander wasn’t called Alexander the Mediocre). Truth be told, even Marie Curie wanted to be great. Proof of this: As soon as she discovered radium she reported her findings to the scientific community. She did it the next day. She wanted to be great, too!

Wanting to be great is only human, but it has become a runaway addiction in our modern society. It’s the result of living in a country where there are few ceilings, I suppose, where some people really do go from subsistence to the stratosphere overnight.

So it’s important, as Madame Curie (and cartoonist Randall Munroe) reminds us, “You don’t become great by being great. You become great by wanting to do something. And then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

There’s another element to greatness, however. It’s luck. Countless millions of people have worked hard and selflessly at tasks. And yet they have died in obscurity, at least as far as the newspapers and histories are concerned.

Why? Nassim Taleb, in his wonderful book, The Black Swan, explains it well: “The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, et cetera, just like the population of millionaires. There may be some differences in skills, but what truly separates the two is for the most part a single factor: luck. Plain luck.”

So where was Madame Curie’s stroke of luck? In her case it was being turned down by the University of Krakow where she was to study magnetism, and meeting her husband Pierre Curie.  Her luck continued when Pierre showed her a quirky device called an electrometer. Her husband and his brother had invented it 15 years earlier to measure electric current, and had essentially put away in the closet. Curie pulled it out, and using it, discovered that uranium caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity. No one had done that before.

Now you may say that those are circumstances rather than luck. But in many cases they are one and the same.  Orville Wright would not have invented the first workable airplane without Wilbur; Walt Disney would have been penning cartoons in Kansas City if not for his brother Roy, who encourage Walt to come to LA, and then kept Walt from running the business into bankruptcy; Steve Jobs, of course, wouldn’t have been able to start Apple had he not chanced upon Steve Wozniak as a kid.

But luck is more than the creation of dynamic duos. I’ve been working lately on a book about electricity, and what is surprising (dare I say shocking) is that as you look at the work of the pioneers–William Gilbert, Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvani, Hans Christian Oerstad, Andre Marie Ampere, George Simon Ohm, Michael Faraday, Heinrich Hertz, and on up to the present day, nearly every advance has been a matter of luck. Yes, of course, hard work. But luck, too.

Take the basic element of the electronic world, the transistor. The Bell Labs semiconductor group of Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley (all of whom would win Nobel Prizes) thought the key to the transistor was in the extraction of an extremely pure slab of silicon, from which thin slices could be cut.

But it was only after a lab technician incorrectly cut a slab, so that a thin layer of impure silicon spread across the top, that their oscilloscopes leapt with a surge of electrons. Suddenly they got it—Eureka!—they needed this slice of impure silicon to make the rest of it work. Had the technician not made a mistake, they wouldn’t have realized it. Another group of scientists may have created the transistor first. Then that group would have been great. They would have had their pictures posted prominently on the walls—and the team of Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley would have been consigned to the dustbins of history.

So luck is the lightning bolt that creates greatness. It’s true of writers as well. Please remember that when Melville finished writing Moby Dick (and talk about sweat equity) he was rewarded in his lifetime with sales of about 3,000 copies. Or how about O. Henry? Went to his grave broke. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald found tepid reviews and no sales for The Great Gatsby. In their cases, they had to be dead before the lightning bolt struck. And, of course, there are countless other authors for whom the lightning bolt never struck at all. If you’ve been working away at a new book lately, this may be a bit of depressing news

But the upside of this is that since greatness is largely out of your control, you can relax. Just get on with your writing, for your writing’s sake. And keep at it, for goodness sake. “What I’ve learned, above all,” says scientist Leonard Mlodinow, “is to keep marching forward—because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at-bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized.”

Who knows–you may be next on luck’s gravy train. And don’t think you’re not good enough. As Taleb notes, “Luck is far more egalitarian than even intelligence. If people were rewarded strictly according to their abilities, things would still be unfair—people don’t chose their abilities. Randomness has the beneficial effect of reshuffling society’s cards, knocking down the big guy.”  So take heart.

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Randall Munroe and Zombie Marie Curie on Greatness

States of mind

You already may know about my preoccupation with the remarkably clever and heartfelt stick figure comic series XKCD by cartoonist and former NASA scientist Randall Munroe. Today’s installment of XKCD, “Marie Curie,” makes a key point about greatness, a topic that’s easy to drop into conversation but about which not much practical advice is usually available. Munroe has a little bit of just that kind of practical advice to offer:

It’s that point Zombie Marie Curie makes about greatness that grabs me particularly: “You don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

Among other ways this connects to what we know about self-motivation is its relationship to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” the process of losing yourself in a task and thereby realizing your greatest possible skill at it (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow“). It also reminds us of the importance of caring more about the process than to how other people might respond to the result.


Practice versus Deliberate Practice

Strategies and goals

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says, “Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”  For reference, 10,000 hours would translate into (for example) 20 hours a week for ten years.

What 10,000 hours gets you
The bar for “true expertise” here is pretty high: Gladwell and the researchers he’s referring to are talking about being not just really good at something, but world-class–a Meryl Streep, an Arnold Palmer, a Yo Yo Ma, a Marie Curie. To put this in perspective, earning my first dan black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan at a rigorous Taekwondo school took me something on the order of 600 hours of practice, a far cry from 10,000 hours. The difference between 600 hours and 10,000 hours is the difference between me and Jackie Chan.

By the way, if you’re thinking “Practice is fine, but it’s no substitute for natural talent,” I direct you to my article “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?” The value of “talent” is surprisingly limited.

Beyond just practicing
Gladwell’s point is fascinating, especially when we realize how much research supports it, but Geoffrey Colvin offers a further insight in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. In that book, he gives some of the same kinds of evidence Gladwell discusses for practice, not “inborn talent,” being the key to world-class performance, but goes further to say that not all practice is created equal. After all, if it just took 10,000 hours of doing something to become truly great at it, why isn’t every accountant who’s been working full-time for at least 5 years phenomenally wonderful at accounting? The key is what Gladwell and others refer to as “deliberate practice.”

[Deliberate practice] definitely isn’t what most of us do on the job every day, which begins to explain the great mystery of the workplace–why we’re surrounded by so many people who have worked hard for decades but have never approached greatness. Deliberate practice is also not what most of us do when we think we’re practicing golf or the oboe or any of our other interests. Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

In other words, if you want to become great it’s not enough to show up and do what you’re supposed to, whether we’re talking about hitting golf balls, reconciling accounts, or teaching seven-year-olds. To become great, we have to push ourselves, to seek out great teachers or sources of learning, constantly create new challenges, and pay close attention to what results we get. Colvin describes deliberate practice by example: “Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day.”

Examples of practice vs. deliberate practice
I can feel the difference when I try deliberate practice in my own life. When I’m studying Taekwondo, it’s the difference between just trying to get through a sequence of moves and pushing myself to concentrate on specific aspects of every single motion, like stance, breath control, or reaction force. For an example in writing, several years ago I joined The Daily Cabal, a group that requires me to create entirely new stories in less than 400 words, often on a weekly basis. For some of these I’ve pushed myself, practiced very deliberately–for instance, “A Is For Authority” took serious effort, concentration, and sweat–while “The Plot Against Barbie’s Life” practically wrote itself as soon as I came up with the title. (By the way, for writers who may be reading this post, as of July 27, 2010 we’re accepting applications for new Cabal members.)

Is deliberate practice always productive?
Note that deliberate practice doesn’t necessarily make a better immediate result. My short story “A Ship that Bends” was rewritten numerous times and eventually became a published finalist (but not a winner) in the Writers of the Future contest, by far the largest English language speculative fiction contest in the world. My novelette “Bottomless” (about villages on ledges deep inside a bottomless pit) won second place in the contest the following year and was another of those pieces that came out fairly easily. It’s probably worth noting that by the time I wrote those stories, I suspect I already had at least a thousand hours of writing practice.

The upshot is simply this: practice–even deliberate practice–may produce either good or lousy immediate results, but only long-term, deliberate practice produces the skills to consistently deliver great results.

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