Behind every effortless display of skill

Behind every effortless display of skill lies thousands of hours of effortful deliberate practice.

I recently had the opportunity to ask a fantastic communicator about his journey to effortless public speaking. He shared two nuggets.

First, he talked about the commitment he made when he decided to become a great communicator. He realized it mattered to him and wanted to get really good. So, he committed to doing 50 speaking events in the next twelve months. 10 speaking events would be a lot for most people. But, he started with a talk at the local library and went on to complete 50 in about 18 months.

Now that he had established a level of comfort and expertise, the next step was continuous improvement. Before every talk, he asks a friend/colleague to look out for 1-2 things he can do better. By making a specific request, he ensures there’s no cop out “you did great!” answer. He then follows up after the talk on the feedback and incorporates it for the next one. He’s been doing this for a decade.

It is worth repeating again then – behind every effortless display of skill lies thousands of hours of effortful deliberate practice.


When people are trained on influence and persuasion, they generally study a combination of what master influencers do and what interesting social science research points to. The inherent assumption is that the difference between you and the master influencer that you will become is a few skills.

However, when I reflect on my attempts to persuade people, I realize that I’ve actually not been all that persuasive when I set out to be persuasive. Instead, I was most persuasive when I wasn’t trying at all.

So, what happened when I wasn’t trying? I was influence-able. I was more willing to listen, to ask questions and to have a conversation without attempting to make a sale. As I was in tune with what the right decision should be, I was able to really contribute to the conversation and help make the right decision.

It turns out influence isn’t all that different from most other valuable skills. It isn’t about them, it is about us.

Or, put differently, the hard part about influence isn’t learning persuasion. It is learning to be persuadable ourselves.

PS: You might be able to push your view onto someone else for a while. Or, you might even get them to act in a way that isn’t in their interest. It is generally short term. And, that’s not influence anyway, it is manipulation.

Luck or skill

It is helpful to distinguish between the effects of luck and skill. Our human bias is generally to attribute most of our success to skill and that of those around us to luck. Of course, that isn’t very helpful.

The ability to seeing things as they are versus how we’d like them to be is a particularly powerful habit. And, yes, it is a habit. In this case, distinguishing between luck and skill helps us in two ways.

First, it helps us make better decisions by virtue of us having the right map. Imagine being stuck in a new city and following the wrong map. That’s how we’d make decisions if we aren’t truly aware of what our skills are. It is a critical component of self awareness.

Second, it helps us learn more from those around us. If we get good at identifying the valuable skills that others possess, we can both learn from them and, in cases where those skills are complementary, make it a point to surround ourselves with people with those skills in the future.

At the end of the day, how we deconstruct success into luck and skill is still just our point of view. But, it is important we attempt to do so periodically and test our assumptions from time to time. The more we can move this from our truth to “the truth,” the better for us and those around us.

The only question – Jiro Ono and Rene Redzepi

Rene Redzepi, the chef and founder of Noma – the restaurant that has been consistently ranked the best restaurant in the world, conversed with Jiro Ono at Ono’s legendary sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. I am a huge fan of the movie on Ono – Jiro Dreams of Sushi. So, I enjoyed every minute of the short 12 minute summary video.

My favorite part of the conversation was (paraphrased) –

“How long did it take for you to feel like you became a master?”
“Till when I was 50 years old.” 
“Between when you started as a teenager to when you were 50, did you every think of quitting?” 
“No. The only question I asked was – how can I get better?”

Powerful. Thank you, Rene and Jiro-san. And, hat tip to Matt Mullenweg for sharing this.

Talent -> Skill -> Work ethic

Watch a bunch of 5 year olds playing a new sport and you’ll quickly be able to spot the ones with natural talent.

8 years later, however, it’ll get harder to tell which ones were the talented ones from the group you first saw. This is also because 9 out of every 10 who started out at 5 are probably not even playing in this group. The differences observed at this stage become less about talent and a lot more about skill.

A further 8 years later, you’ll be hard pressed to remember if the survivors (again 1 out of 10 you saw 8 years back) were among the original talented 5 year olds. In this group, everyone has above-the-threshold talent and skill. It is work ethic that sets them apart.

Talent is what we are born with. It has a lot to do with our mental and physical make up. Some bodies, for example, are just a lot more suited to long distance running. Skill is when we wrap process around that talent. We use that mental and physical make-up and coax it to do a series of counter intuitive things that enable the individual to perform that skill at a certain level of consistency. For a soccer player, it is often learning collect the ball and make a difficult pass/take a shot in one fluid movement. Talent helps speed up the skill acquisition process. And, the speed of the skill acquisition process determines if you have what it takes to become a professional in what you do. However, skill alone doesn’t do much in a professional’s life. Sure, prodigious skill could result in a brief spell at the top. But, again, it is work ethic that makes a top top professional.

You’ve seen this in every field. Michael Phelps is a great example of natural talent (he was born with an abnormal wing span) who was able to learn the basics of swimming very quickly. But, it is when his coach coaxed in an unmatched work ethic that the became a machine that won a record number of Olympic medals. Whether it is Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Jerry Rice, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Schumacher or Tiger Woods, you’ll be hard pressed to find a superstar who doesn’t have an awe-inspiring work ethic.

And, while we are at it, I’d like to call attention to two important points. First, talent isn’t completely overrated. It helps greatly in the first stage. But, the irony is that we often see above-average talent triumph prodigious talent because they have to work a lot harder on the process. I once met a ticket collector on the DLR in London who used to be a teenage player at Chelsea football club. He said John Terry (Chelsea’s captain and legend) was among the least talented and skillful players as a teenager. All the others, however, just lacked the discipline and work ethic he had.

Second, notice how being professional involves mastering yourself and things you control. Talent isn’t in your circle of influence. Skill sort of is. But, work ethic? It is completely what you make of it.

Needing luck

When you follow a good process, you lessen the need for luck. It’s when you follow a bad process that you gravely need luck.

The last time I found myself fervently hoping for luck, I reminded myself that, if this didn’t work out, it was because I was paying the price for a bad process.

Hoping for luck is something I seek to eliminate – good skill trumps good luck in my book. Luck is always welcome, of course. But, skill is more reliable.

And, I’d take consistency over sporadic brilliance any day.