Saturday, May 2, 2009


Wow - I knew it had been a while since I'd posted, but I was amazed to see just how long.

So back to work. If you've been in a leadership position for any amount of time, I hope you've noticed that good ideas come from all quarters. At a given moment, anybody in the room might come up with an insight that all the really important folks (like yourself) have missed.

Still, it can't be denied: some people are just smart. Really smart. You know who you are.

So I was interested in this David Brooks piece, entitled “Genius,” in the New York Times. As the author relates, and as we all know, the path to success is the same as the route to Carnegie Hall: practice.

When I was a kid, I was a huge Lakers fan, and my particular favorite was number 44, Jerry West. As a teen, West “practiced in the rain, mud, and snow. He would forget to go home to eat dinner, and would practice shooting until his fingers bled.” Result? Well, among his many other accomplishments, West still holds the NBA record for free throws made in a season – and that was in 1966!

Sure, West was born with talent. But lots of people are, and only West has held that free throw record for nearly as long as I've been alive. What made a kid from a West Virginia backwater into a superstar were those hours and hours of relentless, painful, mind-numbing practice.

But I wondered, when I read the Brooks piece, about intellectual, rather than athletic, accomplishment. Brooks mentions Mozart, but implies that Mozart's early and regular practice with the piano is what led to his reputation as a genius. That might be true if he were best known for his playing, but of course, Mozart is actually famous for composition. The most brilliant pianists aren't necessarily great composers (Chopin being a notable exception).

So how to account for superior intellectual achievement in areas like composition, or leadership, or innovation?

Whenever I think of the term “genius”, I take a moment to lament my own lost potential, and then I get past that and I think of the physicist Richard Feynman. In part, of course, because that's the title of James Gleick's terrific biography of Feynman. But fundamentally, it's for the same reason that Gleick had when he chose the name of his book. Feynman was – second only perhaps to Einstein – the iconic genius of the 20th century.

But if repetition, more than innate gift, made Jerry West what he was, and Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods and Yo-Yo Ma what they are, what made Feynman, Feynman?

Thanks to Feynman's habit of writing about himself, and to Gleick's account, we know the answer: Practice. Nobody worked through problems in their head more than Feynman. No matter what else was going on, Feyman's inner dialog was never silent. Feynman himself writes, “I have a limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction.” There are too many examples to relate here, but when he says “use”, he means: rehearse. Over and over again.

Don't believe in “intellectual practice”? Consider Jill Price. You may have heard of her: she's the woman who remembers virtually every minute of her life. Misleadingly labeled “the woman who can't forget,” Price can recount what she was doing at any given time, or tell you the exact time she was doing any given activity. Scientists are fascinated by her, and are seeking biochemical or anatomical clues to her incredible capabilities.

But, as Gary Marcus suggests in Wired, Price's amazing recall may be due less to biology than to (wait for it): Practice! Marcus believes that “Price remembers so much about herself because she thinks about herself—and her past—almost constantly.” He goes on to conclude:
[Michael] Jordan wasn't born the greatest basketball player of all time; he became the greatest, combining considerable but not unique innate talent with an incredible amount of hard work shooting free throws and practicing jumpers long after most of his peers were out carousing. Whether intentionally or not, Price has shown the same sort of daily dedication to chronicling her own life.
I'm going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that leadership takes practice. Innovation takes practice. The fact that the practice occurs in your head, or in a meeting, or in a memo, doesn't make it any less fundamental. And surely the fact that you aren't always successful shouldn't deter you: even in his record-setting '66 season, Jerry West missed 14% of his free throws.

The lesson for me? I need to post more often. I simply need the practice.

No comments: