Expertise: Greatness Takes Time
Each of you as a good manager must use the gift that God has given you to serve others.
1 Peter 4:10, GW
Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Alabama bus on December 1, 1955, young men were carving out a path of excellence in their own right. Those men were the Tuskegee Airmen. They were the first black military aviators in the US armed forces.
During WWII, despite being subject to Jim Crow laws, these men served the US faithfully. By 1945, it was reported by the Chicago Defender that the 332nd Fighter Group—which escorted bombers and defended from enemy planes—suffered no losses of bombers after 200 missions.
These black men were excellent in their work. Their talent to fly helped to eradicate the stereotypes of black inferiority and restore a sense of pride in the black community. These men had a collective sense of purpose and developed their craft to help uplift their people.
As one black educator said, the rescue of a people can only be done by exceptional men. The Tuskegee airmen were those exceptional men. The freedom that black people took back was even sweeter when the talents, skills, and abilities of black people were developed to such a great level of excellence.
From the last section, I discussed Bryan Stevenson’s dream of justice. His dream could not have been realized unless he had constantly developed his craft. His purpose started with his frustration about the justice system and evolved into a focus on developing the skills necessary to get a job done.
After meeting with the young man on Death Row in the days before he was an attorney, he was motivated to learn more. He took many courses on litigation, federal courts, constitutional law, appellate procedure, and collateral remedies. His desire to sharpen his abilities was based on his acute sense of purpose, which was afforded to him by his proximity to the problems. Simply, he got close to what he cared about and saw what he needed to do.
Many young people know their passion and their purpose but lack a process to become proficient at something. Part of having a fulfilling and productive life is finding a talent and then turning it into a strength. Accessing human talent and ability is too unique to be confined to a formula, but there are some overarching elements for achieving mastery of your chosen craft:
Connect your purpose with your gifts and talents
Identify your gifts and talents. See Chapter 4 Gifts, Talents, Skills and Strengths in Bridge the Gaps. The eye can’t see the eye. Have your community provide you with feedback. See Chapter 5, What Do Other People See in You.
Help your mentees find the gift and talent that they can become world-class at: mindset. Here’s a hint. Whatever you can do obsessively is what you have the potential to be world-class at.
It’s rare to find someone who had clarity in advance about how their talent would connect with their purpose. That takes time and often, trial and error. You must fight to remind yourself that each person has genius and an enormous level of talent, but both often remain dormant.
Ava Duvernay used her gifting to create movies and series, including When They See Us.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used his keen spiritual insight to highlight the immorality of segregation and awaken the conscience of a nation.
Lebron James used his gift for basketball to create new entrepreneurial models for inner-city youth. He also went on to start a school.
Robert Smith used his gift for business to pay off the debt of the graduates of Morehouse College in May of 2019.
Reflection: What untapped gifts do I need to acknowledge?
Have a standard of performance consistent with greatness
It’s hard to be what you’ve never seen. It’s hard to aspire to heights that you’ve never seen reached. This requires that you identify who is a master of their craft and commit to practicing consistently, reaching toward their level.
“Observe people who are good at their work. Skilled workers are always in demand and admired; they don’t take a backseat to anyone.” (Proverbs 22:29, MSG.) “Iron sharpens iron.” Proverbs 27:17, NIV. Identify your craft and put the 10,000 hours in. See Chapter 24 of Bridge the Gaps – Lessons on Self-Awareness, Self-Development and Self-Care.
Time and work are the price you pay for greatness. I’m a big believer that when you study all the great people in your craft, it’s impossible to not be inspired. You automatically start drawing from people who have done it before.
Expand your exposure. Teach your mentees to trace the steps of those they look up to and see what positive habits or action steps fit their own journeys. Listen to those who are farther along the same path, and learn from their successes and failures.
Rather than being a fan, be a student of great people. Find the person who is the best at their craft and then prune their philosophy to fit the context of your purpose.
Submit to a process of development
“Give yourselves to disciplined instruction; open your ears to tested knowledge.” (Proverbs 23:11, MSG)
When you first get started, the size of your dream probably outweighs your mastery of the craft by tenfold. While it’s true that “a person’s gift makes room for him, and leads him before important people,” that gift will not nurture itself (Proverbs 18:16, NET). This is where structure becomes important.
Many people have passion, but they need a process to give their gift time to mature. Pay your dues with preparation and education Desire without knowledge is not good. (Proverbs 19:2, NIV)
All people who intend on growing and learning will, at some point, go through the feeling of incompetence. That’s part of the learning curve. It’s usually a two-step process. You realize you want to do something, and then you realize your abilities are lacking—not because you lack talent, but because your gift hasn’t yet been cultivated.
Your power of choice includes the choice to work on being better. Adults have a harder time at this than young people. If you want to improve, old or young, you must learn to be comfortable with the feeling of incompetence that comes with learning something new.
Don’t skip steps. Go through the process. You’ll be better for it. Don’t be afraid to go slowly. Be afraid to stand still. Ignorance cannot be an excuse when the resources are available. If you want to make a difference with your craft, your free time isn’t free. It belongs to the craft.
It’s been said that post-season success in sports comes from pre-season practice. You can’t control how long the game is, but you can control how long you’ll practice for the game.
Tools of Development
1. Repetition in the dark—Repetition is the road to turning talent in strengths. If you don't see greatness in rehearsal, you won't see it in recital. Can you play without clapping? Quantity leads to quality. Develop memory within your specialty. Experts develop indexes of information that they can relay to you at any point in time. Constantly working on your craft keeps you from being obsolete. Professionals strive to do things until they can’t get it wrong.
2. Reading—This is the greatest piece of advice I’ve ever heard. Read more books and do more personal development than anyone in your profession.
3. Focus—Learn how to engage in your work with no distractions. Cultivate distraction-free concentration and work with intensity to hone your cognitive abilities. The process of developing mastery of your craft will have its share of complications, so focus is vitally important. As our world changes, this skill is becoming increasingly important. A simultaneous phenomenon is that the number of potential distractions is increasing. Many people live in a state of partial inattention. Practice giving one thing at a time the priority of your focus.
4. Embrace failure. Keep failing, and fail better. Feeling bad about your performance of a particular skill is not only a good thing—it’s a necessary prerequisite to improving and eventually achieving mastery.
5. Develop a great work ethic. It’s been said that you should think of rest as a necessity and not a destination. For many people, natural talent and ability can sustain their success in life, but at some point, the returns will diminish. Only tenacity, commitment, and hard work will yield high achievement. Stay within striking distance of excellence, because you won’t have to get ready if you stay ready. Some opportunities do not become available unless you are fine-tuned to get that shot. When you work hard to become an expert, you let your work do the talking. Don't miss out on something that could be great just because it could be very hard. Great opportunities are usually disguised as hard work. Young adults have to push through a sense of entitlement that urges them to leapfrog over the hard work that those who came before them did to provide them with a potential to do more. Mastery requires not just effort, but sustained effort. To achieve a standard of excellence and accomplish anything extraordinary means aiming high and being disciplined and willing to devote long hours to the task at hand.
-Olympic athletes train for years just to experience the thrill of one winning moment.
-Virtuoso musicians practice endlessly just to keep their skills at peak performance.
-The scientist who wins the Nobel Prize has experimented and refined his theories over the course of a career.
6. Iterate. You develop expertise by repeating the same action again and again. You developed a skillset by repeating a set of actions iteratively. Nothing happens overnight. You pick up gold one nugget at a time.
7. Value obscurity. The cost of notoriety is safety, because you can lose credibility when your visibility surpasses your ability. It's harder to take risks when people are watching you. Anyone who became great at anything became great by first criticizing their own performance. It’s not a great feeling to be criticized about your performance, but it is necessary to get honest feedback. If you sweat more in practice, you’ll bleed less in the battle. The best time to perfect your gift is when you’re out of the public eye. Then you can prepare yourself emotionally and mentally for the exposure. You can make low-cost mistakes when the lights are not on you or the audience is smaller.
8. Find your element. This work is too hard to only be concerned with the results. There has to be an element in the work itself that aligns with something you derive enjoyment from. See Chapter 6 – Work Styles. A Word to Parents: When you, as a parent, invest in your child and that investment doesn’t produce the desired result, don’t stop investing in your child, as many parents do. As a parent, you can encourage vocational experiments/investments without recklessly spending money. Continue to encourage freedom for a young person trying to find their niche while understanding that there will be false starts.
9. Respect the process. Be faithful. In football, receivers are taught to catch the ball, secure it, and then make a move. They practice this over and over again. Start with the basics until you can’t get them wrong. Focus on being deliberate and clear on the process of developing your skill. Part of respecting the process is being open to discoveries about yourself.
10. Focus on getting better, not just being good. A perspective that focuses on progress rather than perfection will help you maximize your talents. Fortunately, there's no time frame on practice. You will become a life-long learner in your area of expertise.
See Chapter 24 – 10,000 Hours in Bridge the Gaps – Lessons on Self-Awareness, Self-Development, and Self-Care. Go to www.thebridge330.com to pick up a copy.