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Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t all a bit like Walter Mitty. We dream of living rich, exciting, adventure-filled lives. Ask kids what they want to be, and you’ll get answers like basketball player, actress, ballerina, president. When those kids say that they want to be president, they’re not talking about the Rotary Club, either. They’re aiming for the top.

My point is, we don’t want to be mediocre. Most of us dream about being a star, a genius. We admire people who push the limits in their fields. We wish that we could do amazing things. We want to win ridiculous amounts of Olympic medals like Michael Phelps, or save the country from financial crisis. Yes, even perfectly respectable adults have their daydreams, just like Walter Mitty. That’s why we read fiction and watch movies.

Daydreams can be nice ways to escape the boring reality of every day life, but they can also trap us. When we “wake up” from the dream, we console ourselves by saying that we could be great if we were only blessed with the incredible talent that so-and-so has. If we had their genes, we would be amazing too.

But the evidence suggests that we’re wrong.

We’re not mediocre because we have mediocre genes. We’re mediocre because we’re lazy.

Sure, there are basic facts of nature and physics that shape our ability. We all know that Michael Phelps was built to swim. But beyond the basic physics stuff, research suggests that practice (lots of it!) plays a larger part in achievement than talent does.

That’s right. If you want to be amazing at something, start practicing. Hard. Every day. For at least 10 years. And make sure you analyze and improve your work as you go along.

This concept hurts a little when you personalize it. Sit there and say, “I’m mediocre because I’m lazy.” Say it softly to yourself a few times, and I’m sure you’ll need a Krispy Kreme doughnut or some dark chocolate to recover from the resulting depression.

It doesn’t have to be depressing, though. See, if only genes determine our capabilities, then we’re doomed to mediocrity. But if practice and [gasp!] work have a large part to play, then it’s not hopeless. If you want to be good at something, you probably can be. You just have to work at it.

If you want to read about this idea, and some of the research behind it, start by reading How to be Great: Rising Above the Talent Myth (from Litemind). It’s the article that [most recently] got me thinking about this topic. That article references several other interesting articles, listed below.

What it takes to be Great

The Expert on Experts

Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice

Innate Talents: Reality or Myth?

And here are a few more (not from the Litemind article)

The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance

How did A-Rod Get So Good?

A Star is Made

If you still want more to read, start looking for stuff with Anders Ericsson’s name on it. Or start reading the The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (it’s approximately 900 pages, so don’t plan to finish it tonight). Better yet, pick something important, and go practice it.

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