A Proven Route to Better Prospecting

Dan Richards

Even the most successful athletes and artists must spend hours practicing. But it’s not just LeBron James, Yo-Yo Ma and Bruce Springsteen who benefit from regular, focused practice. A recent conversation with a leading researcher on peak performance highlighted how advisors benefit from some of the same principles of focused practice.

Anders Ericcson is the psychologist whose research underpins the “10,000 hour rule,” the principle popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. This principle states that it takes 10 years of practicing for 20 hours per week to become outstanding in any field. In a recent talk to a group of MBA students at the University of Toronto, Ericcson outlined why focused practice doesn’t only apply to mastering an instrument, excelling at a sport or becoming a chess grandmaster. Indeed, he outlined how these same principles can be useful to anyone – from a student looking for a job to an advisor hoping to get better results dealing with existing and prospective clients.

The 10,000-hour rule

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell noted that natural ability, while important, is not enough to become world class in a field. After all, there are a great many tremendously gifted artists, musicians and athletes who are anonymous, having failed to turn their talent into success. Gladwell argues that, beyond ability, it’s many years of dedicated practice that set the most successful practitioners apart.

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As one example, many of us know the story of Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard in 1975 to co-found Microsoft with Paul Allen. What is less appreciated is the fact that Gates and Allen first spent many hours programming computers at a time when computers were relatively rare. Much of this happened while they attended a private prep school in Seattle, where in 1968 their “Mothers Club” used proceeds from a rummage sale to buy a terminal and computer time for the school’s students. From age 13, Gates and Allen began spending what would amount to thousands of hours during evenings, weekends and summers honing their programming skills, something that Gates continued to do when he started at Harvard.

In a Harvard Business Review article, The Making of an Expert, Ericcson pointed to research on the childhoods of 120 elite performers who had won international competitions in fields ranging from music and the arts to mathematics and neurology. He concluded that there were no early indications that could have predicted the success of these prize-winners. They did, however, have three things in common:

  1. They had strong support from their families
  2. They practiced intensively for many years
  3. They studied with highly proficient teachers

Why deliberate practice matters

In his new book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericcson emphasizes that hours of practice are not sufficient; it’s what he refers to as deliberate practice that sets star performers apart. There are two aspects to deliberate practice – what you practice and how you practice it. In Ericcson’s words:

There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.