If you seek to be great at something, whatever it may be, you must first understand what it takes to be great in that endeavor. Without this knowledge, you are guessing as you create your plan, goals and preparation schedule. You could actually head off in the wrong direction and do more damage than good, if you’re not careful.
So, how do you find these requirements then? There are several methods, which are not mutually-exclusive. You should do them all, if you’re serious about achieving greatness in your endeavor as quickly as possible.
The first, quickest and most direct method of obtaining the requirements, is to go directly to the “horse’s mouth”. That is, you should contact one or several people who have already done what you’re trying to do and ask them how they did it. There are a couple of challenges with this approach. First, top achievers are often very busy people and they are difficult to reach and get time from. Second, even if you do reach them and you manage to ask them your questions, they may not even fully understand how they did it! Some people are great performers, but are not particularly introspective or analytical, so when you ask them to “break it down” for you and give you insights, they may not know where to start. That being said, it is very much worth taking this step. At a minimum, in this process, you may just find a role model or even a mentor.
The second method of finding the key requirements is to talk to one or several coaches in the domain. These could also be referred to as subject matter experts (SME) or maybe even SMEs with a bit extra, as they have chosen to be coaches and thus are likely oriented toward maximizing performance in your particular endeavor. Depending on the area you’re looking at, they may even have attended school for many years and have completed specialized study and certification, in order to be considered coaches. For example, if you are looking to achieve greatness in tennis, speaking with a tennis coach or a certified teaching professional would be a step that could make a lot of sense. You may still want to take the first step of talking to some people that have already done what you’re trying to do – become great at tennis – but a coach is the person who could likely best take you through it step by step, and perhaps more importantly, give you specific feedback on your progress as you go. This is an important part of “deliberate practice”. While this may become a bit costly, as you’ll likely need to receive coaching over an extended period of time, if you’re truly trying to achieve greatness in the endeavor, you likely don’t mind spending some money to do so in the most direct manner possible.
The third manner of uncovering the key requirements for greatness in your endeavor is to read books by experts in the field. Reading appeals to some folks and does not appeal to others. There are also many books on tape now, which you can listen to when you are driving or exercising. You can also find many instructional videos if you happen to be someone who learns better by watching video. Whatever your favorite medium for learning, you would be wise to seek a variety of learning materials to increase your exposure to all sorts of techniques and opinions on achieving greatness in your chosen field of endeavor. While some may be concerned about becoming overwhelmed with information, just be careful to take all information you consume “with a grain of salt,” use what you can at present, and then discard or file the rest away for later use.
The fourth way to discern the key requirements for achieving greatness in your field is to watch true professionals in action. If what you’re trying to become great at is a sport, watch as many events as you can, but don’t just watch as a fan or casual observer; watch as a student of the game. Use the stop action (pause) on your DVR. Try to watch the bigger picture as well as the fine points of what the players are doing. Take notes and discuss your observations with other players, fans and coaches. Learn as much as you can through inference as you watch and try to “get inside the heads” of the players, so that you may understand the key requirements for success that they, as professionals, are focusing on. Depending on the level of the players you are observing and their accessibility, try to talk to them after the competition and understand what they were thinking. If what you are trying to become great at is not a sport, the same approach applies: observe professionals in action, try to understand the big picture and the finer points, take notes, discuss with others, try to talk to those involved in the action and try to incorporate and emulate the best of what you see in your own “game”. To become truly great at something, besides putting in a ton of hard work, you must become a serious student of that endeavor.
Fifth, and finally for now, put to work everything you’ve learned in the above steps. Practice your chosen area of greatness tirelessly, constantly trying to improve and never giving up. Practice is the best method of learning, as long as it is “deliberate practice” rooted in the repetition of the key requirements you learned in the steps above, followed by feedback, so you can continuously improve. It does not serve your cause to practice the wrong methods and steps over and over again – that sort of repetition will only take you further away from your goal of greatness.
I look forward to your thoughts and comments.