What separates the ‘successful’ from the rest, those who are not considered ‘elite’ or an ‘expert’ in their field?
Success often means different things to different people. So, for the purpose of this discussion, we'll take the definition provided by Oxford Languages, "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose" and adapt it to describe success as "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose to an elite or expert standard".
Much research and literature has been conducted into whether DNA and natural-born talent develops brilliance, or whether it is, in fact, hard work and practice that produces the Olympic-level athletes and multi-billion-pound business entrepreneurs. Throughout this article, the aim is not only to understand from a general perspective, but to also look at how, from a recruitment perspective, this should affect the future of hiring processes.
Throughout his first book, Bounce, international table-tennis champion and author, Matthew Syed, demonstrates time and time again that hard-work is, in fact, the key to becoming elite in all industries. Using his own research and that of others such as Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, he begins to demonstrate the importance of prolonged and purposeful practice. The overriding message to be taken from his work is the theory of the ‘ten thousand hour’ or ‘ten years’ of practice rule. He suggests that the only substantial difference between those who make it to the top and those who don’t is their dedication to practice. Indeed, he highlights through the example of Roger Federer that Federer’s advantage is not so much born out of innate skill, but more "it has been gained from a painstaking process of encoding the meaning of subtle patterns of movement, drawn from more than ten thousand hours of practice and competition". Syed also points to the different types of practice required to succeed. Using the analogy of driving a car, he highlights that often, despite the frequency of driving in day-to-day lives, the average person’s driving skills peak at test day, because they subsequently run-on autopilot. His argument therefore concludes that to continue improving and enhancing a skill, practice must be "purposeful" not just frequent.
This dialogue about purposefulness continues when considering how mindset affects hard work and practice. Pat Williams, former Senior Vice President of the Orlando Magic American Basketball Team, highlights that "we average 60,000 thoughts a day….40 percent focus on the future… 30 percent of the thoughts are about the past… 12 percent are thoughts filled with doubt, and…10 percent are worries about our health". He goes on to say that "In other words, the study found that 92 percent of our thoughts are not pictures of our reality" and "When we waste our thoughts like that, we waste our time. And if we’re not careful, we can waste our lives". His point, an interesting one, highlights that unproductive thoughts lessen the amount of time we can, and are, dedicating to more purposeful utilisation of our time, whatever that may be.
Mindset in general plays a huge part in this debate, as it is often deemed to be a huge barrier or gateway to success. It is said that the most successful people are amongst the most courageous and outrageous risk takers. Part of this mentality stems from the understanding that failure is a key part of success and to be successful is to not fear failure. Indeed, if we look at Winston Churchill who is often quoted saying that "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm", we can begin to understand this. Churchill himself suffered countless failures; from failing his exams for the Royal Military College in Sandhurst twice, losing five elections, all whilst also battling clinical depression. What is evident from this is that tough mindset and perseverance likely played a huge part in his journey to become one of our great wartime leaders.
One could argue to the contrary that mindset is an innate trait, but to argue that would be to diminish the work of psychologists who specialise in re-training thought patterns to allow people to reach their greatest potential. That is not to say that it would be easy to change a mindset from one of low self-esteem or fear of failure, it is more to question the possibility that if as much ‘purposeful practice’ was implemented into mental strength as to the specific goal in question, perhaps the ten-year rule would also apply.
When considering the above, one of the most poignant questions that remains is, what makes people want to dedicate ten thousand hours of purposeful practice to their chosen goal? Herein lies, arguably, the most important point in this debate. To be willing to make the necessary sacrifices and dedicate yourself to your art, according to many success stories out there, there must be an underlying passion and love for the task at hand. Richard Branson has, on countless occasions, been quoted to say "you have to have real passion about what you are doing’ and ‘always do what you love and love what you do". In addition, Howard Schultz, former CEO of the Starbucks Corporation, had watched as his father worked countless blue-collar jobs, only to be left with nothing after breaking his ankle, being unable to work. Schultz has since declared that his passion, was not for coffee, but for building a business that looks after employees in a way his father never was. Katherine Kerswell, currently interim Chief Executive at the London Borough of Croydon, previously stated, "I work in local government because I think it’s the best place that you can really support people" and she is "really passionate about the way local government can support individuals and communities to be the best they possibly can".
With all of this in mind, and moving to consider how this affects the process of hiring the best talent, perhaps we need to rethink our focus. Experience cannot be entirely ignored, it is true, especially when considering recruitment into executive positions that need someone to hit the ground running. However, there is an argument to say that the candidate of ‘perfect experience’ on paper, when compared to one of less thorough experience, should be judged on drive and determination, just as much as the disparity in experience. An experienced, but unmotivated candidate in an organisation will perhaps produce lesser results than a somewhat newer candidate with hunger, passion, and determination to succeed. As Howard Schultz of Starbucks says of his hiring technique, "We need happy people—we’re a people company that serves coffee, not the other way around…If you don’t believe we can do this, or you don’t believe in me, this isn’t going to work". Instead of a primary focus on what and where an individual has achieved previously, maybe we should be asking our prospective candidates two key questions: how passionate are you about this job and how hard are you willing to work to succeed in it?
Having concluded that it is ultimately passion that drives the ‘successful’ to dedicate their time to purposeful practice in their career of choice and to pull themselves back from repeated failure, we are left wondering: how does one find their passion? The answer to this possibly demonstrates further why some become the ‘elites’ whilst others fall short. Perhaps the desires, drivers and motivations that push them forward, are different to the rest of us. Indeed, it is for that reason that within recruitment, wide use is being made of psychometric profiling, to discover what makes a person tick. The hope being that identifying a person’s drivers will help match them to the position, organisation, and industry that has matching goals and that will allow them to thrive. This topic around understanding your own motivations and passions is such a vast one, deserving of further exploration, that perhaps it becomes a question for another time…