Six Keys to be Excellent at Anything (if you can figure out what to do with the keys)

In honor of the first day of term, which occurs earrrrly Monday AM, I copy here a bit of good advice, courtesy of Tony Schwartz. As with all good advice, especially the best kind, it's as good as it is elusive. Still, I've printed out the six keys, ignored the cheesy "key" part, and pasted it on the wall of my office. It would do me right to pay attention to this advice.

My favorites, if it were possible, are #2, #5 and #6. But they're all good. The advice comes via the Harvard Business Review, so it's at least worth a serious once-over.

1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.

2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That's when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.

3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.

4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.

5. Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It's also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.

6. Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you'll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.


Now lest we take ourselves too seriously this upcoming school year, I leave you with a fine piece of crisp prose. The observation that it entails also happens to be completely true. Or at least it's true for those of us who recognize ourself in the line. The line comes at the top of page 118 of Michael Chabon's poignantly written The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

"In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, [Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay] decided to lie down for a while and waste time."


Andy Rowell said…
Gotta go study instead of commenting on good blog posts like this one. I like Ericcson.
Laurel said…
Thank you, David - I printed out the "keys" so I can keep them where I'll see them in my art area.
Andy, stay focussed. Don't let me be a stumbling block to your early morning "Do the hardest work first" practices. But I have to say, you're one of the most impressive doctoral students I know. Four kids. Extraordinarily thoughtful and helpful blog. Articles left and right. Great TA for students here at DDS. And down to earth. What's not to like? I'm glad you're around.

Laurel, Phaedra did the same in her art space.
sam said…
love these. thanks for posting.

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