I’ve often wondered what separates the average from the phenomenal.

Why is it that certain people are able to achieve an elite status compared to the vast majority? I examined a multitude of individuals across various disciplines and tried to determine the common factors that could explain their success.

Factor #1: Discipline

Top performers all have one thing in common. The discipline to keep at it. No excuses, period.

I had the UFC on, and watching the way the two fighters moved, it wasn’t hard to see the years of practice that would have gone into their art. Every jab, perfected only after hundreds of thousands of strikes on a punching bag, hours of grappling practice on a mat, the strict but essential diets, and endurance training for days on end.

Applying this to ourselves, discipline is one of the toughest things to master. The key, however, is to block out a time for whatever it is you need to do. For instance, I never stuck to my bike rides because I would only go whenever I felt like it and it was easy to blow it off. After I blocked out 7.15 – 9am every day specifically for that purpose, it became very easy to stick to it. If you don’t do this, it’s deceptively easy to say:

“Oh well, I have plans now. Guess I’ll just do this another time”.

Having a set time for working out or studying, etc, will allow you to plan your day around it rather than over it and skipping it altogether.

This was and still is one of the toughest obstacles for me; finding the discipline to keep working even when you don’t want to. Something I realised is that if you have intrinsic motivation, discipline comes easily. However, if you don’t have this (usually because it’s something you have to do rather than want to do), you need to find some form of extrinsic motivation. If you want to be able to achieve something, it’s going to depend on how badly you want it.

With things like studying, intrinsic motivation is very hard to find unless you love your subjects. In this case, what you can do is to set up external stakes which I will get into in another post, but for now I’ll provide a brief example:

Hold Yourself Accountable by Making a Bet

  • If you lose the bet – meaning that you didn’t achieve your goal – you’d have to go out in public and do something highly embarrassing. Your friend would have to be someone who would hold you accountable for this to work. Tim Ferriss talks about this in one of his interviews, and I believe he called it “fear-setting”. People tend to work much harder if they had something to lose, than they would work in order to gain something.

Factor #2: Loving what they do

Perhaps, the more important of the two factors, I initially thought that this was pretty self-explanatory, but then I realised that perhaps it’s not as simple as it sounds. The thing is, there is a difference between becoming “good” at something and being phenomenal.

That difference is loving what they do almost to the point of (healthy) obsession. To illustrate this, John Mayer’s parents took him to a psychiatrist because they thought he was far too obsessed with the guitar. However, he was deemed to be completely healthy. It was simply his passion for the instrument that drove him to become phenomenal.

I’ve noticed that in many biographies of top-level performers, most of them were almost if not completely obsessed with their skill or sport, be it chess, swimming, culinary arts, acting etc. They didn’t just “like” doing it. To me, that’s what you’d call a hobby. Loving what you do with an undying passion is the difference that will set you apart from the average.

This is where all of the greats put in at least 10 000 hours of practice in order to master or perfect their skill. This is different from the 20 hours it takes to become good at any skill . This involves complete mastery, and takes much longer than 20 hours.

If you want to become world class at anything, you need to find something you truly love. If you don’t know what that is, you can attempt new things until you find something that simply clicks, and once it happens, you’ll know it beyond any doubt.

TL;DR

  • The two factors which separate the great from the average are self-discipline and loving what they do.
  • Discipline comes from setting a block of time to practice your skill and sticking to it.
  • Intrinsic motivation makes sticking to the routine easy, if you don’t have this, find extrinsic motivation. For example, set up stakes that will keep you motivated.
  • People tend to work harder if they have something to lose, compared to the effort they would put in to gain something. Keep this in mind when setting up stakes.
  • Most world-class athletes, musicians, actors, etc are almost obsessed with their skill. This is perhaps the most important difference between the average and the phenomenal.
  • Liking what you do is something I consider a “hobby” while an undying passion for what you do is what sets you apart.

 

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