Mastery and Performance

I recently read a biographic summary of the development of various sports stars from their childhood until their retirement.  There were more than a few inspirational stories of athletes who came from humble beginnings to attain greatness.  About half way through the article, the author discussed Malchom Gladwell’s conclusion from his book Outliers that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of doing something in order to master it (see for more on Gladwell’s work).  The article did a nice job of describing how each athlete had incredible commitment to becoming great early in life.  Friends and family recounted stories of throwing balls around, going to numerous games, and an unquenchable desire to play every day that turned into a more disciplined program during teenage years and mastery in early adulthood.  One interesting profile mentioned that one star player only played, watched television, and slept.  He considered sleeping his only hobby.

As I read the article, two things came to mind: mastery takes a lot of time and requires considerable specialization.  Assuming that you possessed the necessary skills and could work at your desired area of mastery for four hours a day for 365 days a year, it would take you 6.8 years to accumulate 10,000 hours.  If you are like me, it is a struggle to make it to the gym for one hour a day.  At my current rate of one hour per day, I am excited to say that I will master push-ups after a little more than 27 years.  The other idea that struck me was that if I could commit this type of time to mastering something, I would become a relatively one dimensional person.  I would not have time to develop other interests.  Basically, mastery requires a considerable commitment and cost that few are willing to make sacrifice to obtain.

There are several lessons that I think benefit us as leaders and human resource professionals when we consider the complexity of mastery:

  • Mastery is quicker at work today
  • Mastery is not the same as performance
  • Mastery does not guarantee uniform performance

Mastery is Quicker at Work Today

A common concern of organizations today is how long it takes to reach mastery or full competence.  As organizations invest thousands of dollars to hire and develop employees, they want to know at what point the employee will reach full capability and the investment will start to generate the expected return.  Based on the 10,000 hour rule and assuming we work 2,000 hours a year, it would take five years of engaging work to reach full competence in a typical job.  Today, in most organizations, that is the accepted norm.  This is good news since the generally accepted number in the past was greater than five years.  It has diminished over time as new methods of knowledge transfer, convergence of skills, migration to the service economy, and technology utilization have reduced the time necessary to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to be fully competent.  In the past, it was assumed that ten years or 20,000 hours was necessary to reach full competence in a factory setting.  Compensation, training investments, as well as succession management were all planned around this benchmark.   Over the last several decades, we moved to five to seven years and now generally accept five years as the average benchmark.

Mastery is Not the Same as Performance

Most of us have experienced the shock of managing someone very qualified and capable that was not meeting performance expectations.  In many cases, the person has the ability, but little motivation to succeed.  When I was a teacher, I regularly encountered this with students.  Almost every semester, there would be one or two extremely talented students that barely made it to class, missed assignments, and made simple mistakes.  However, the same students could intelligently and eloquently describe the material and clearly possessed a level of mastery beyond their peers.  When I left teaching to become a consultant, I encountered a similar phenomenon.  There were more than a few exceptionally capable and motivated employees that never seemed to combine their abilities in a successful manner.  Some never integrated into the team while others never adjusted to the flow of work typical of the industry.  Consequently, mastery is necessary, but not sufficient to be a high performer.

Mastery does not Guarantee Uniform Performance

Like the athletes in the article, we all have “off” days.  Almost every profile included a synopsis of a period where the sports star did not score as much, defend as well, or maintain the same level of success.  Sadly, in almost every case, fans and even coaches became concerned that the star had simply “lost” his or her ability.  In a few cases, the star even wondered if that was the case.  All high performers have periods where they do not produce at the level that they are capable of even when they are motivated.  Based on the law of averages, we perform above and below our typical average on a day-to-day basis and the variations is just part of the nature of things.

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