December 08, 2008
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit. - Aristotle

When I was in high school, I entertained the possibility of a career in music. I practiced the trumpet every single day for four years, even when I was ill. Ultimately, a musical career was not to be for me but I regret not a moment of practice. I learned a lot about myself and my capacity for discipline besides deepening my appreciation for music which has been a lifelong pleasure.

I also remember to this day the words of my first trumpet teacher, Irving Renquist, who once said when I first began studying with him that "If you skip practice for one day, you will notice it. If you skip practice for two days in a row, the people you live with will notice it. And if you skip practice for three days in a row, EVERYONE will notice it!"

Musician and neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitin, in his thought-provoking This is Your Brain on Music, points out that scientific studies indicate that "ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in ANYTHING!" Then, to be helpful, he reminds us that ten thousand hours is equivalent to "roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years." Well, we knew that it was a lot.

For me, this research indicates that what we often call "talent" is often a "capacity for practice" which recalls to mind, in turn, Eric Hoffer's contention that "success is a species of vigor." Of course, this may well be a chicken or egg debate because why would you want to practice for ten thousand hours at something you weren't predisposed to be good at or had at least some kind of talent which could be further developed?

Chicken or egg, whenever we are in awe observing someone's excellence in anything, we are most usually watching the end result of thousands of hours of diligent practice and thousands upon thousands of "mistakes" made and corrected.

I'm always reminded of this when I come to the end of one of our Conducting Genius sessions (as I did recently at AtlantiCare, a very successful New Jersey healthcare organization), where we train a small cadre of participants to become effective brainstorm facilitators/innovation change agents.

No matter how well I've managed to transmit the inner and outer game of eliciting ideas from others, and no matter how intelligent and dedicated the participants are, I know that their future success as innovation change agents depends on how much they will practice using the techniques and insights of the training.

And how much they practice depends on how many opportunities they can find for themselves and THAT depends, in turn, on how supportive their organization is to innovation, in general, AND in exploiting innovation opportunities as they arise, in particular.

This is why I try to drive this point home during Conducting Genius sessions by teaching our budding "innovation ninjas" how to juggle. In one lesson, most of them can't become proficient jugglers, of course, but they DO learn the step by step process of learning HOW to juggle. The missing ingredient? Practice!

The same is true with learning how to innovate on the job, how to run effective brainstorm sessions, or how to do anything, as Levitin reminds us. If we want to master anything in this world, we have to consistently practice that skill, art, craft, science, behavior, thought process, what have you...AND make lots and lots of "mistakes" on our way to mastery. There is no getting around this truth.

So, the next time you see someone exhibiting mastery in juggling, music, sport, cooking...or innovation...remember that you are witnessing a perfection that is the end result of at least ten thousand hours of dropped balls, missed notes, or souffles which don't souffle.

And also remember, that when it comes to innovation, you and your company have to diligently practice the skills, processes, and behaviors that support it. If you don't, EVERYONE will notice it.

Posted by Val Vadeboncoeur at December 8, 2008 03:19 PM

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