There is a popular saying that success is 10% talent and 90% persistence. Every time you do something towards improving a skill or increasing your knowledge then you are added to the whole. The value of persistence can be found in the principle of compound interest.
Let’s take a monetary example for illustration but the principle can be applied to any skill, field or practice.
If you start with a salary of say £1,000 per week and you decide to save 10% and you are consistent then your saving will increase exponentially. Using an interest rate of 10%.
Growth of your savings using simple and compound interest
With a skill for example you get the biggest improvement early on in you practice and the improvement curve looks like the figure on the right. You make linear improvement early on after initially learning the skill and then the improvement gets less and less or reaches a plateau. This is discouraging to most people but for champions it is not because the difference from average to good is large, from good to excellent much smaller and from excellent to outstanding is minute and from outstanding to legendary status is nanoscale. If you plot earnings then you will go up exponentially just like the curve on the left. The top 1% of the people in the field earns disproportionally more than the people who are merely good at what they do.
Earning going up exponentially (left) for tiny improvements in performance levels (right)
The thing with practice is that you must do it daily even if don’t notice any visible improvements in your skill or level of ability. I remember being in the bottom half of the class at school when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was a good student. I did my homework and attended classes but I just wanted to get by and not get into trouble with my parents and teachers. I got good reports and teachers really liked me. I never really revised for exams or memorised anything. I just read through stuff and then turned up for exams and just did them. I had no strategy or real ambition to do well academically. I was more passionate about martial arts. I had a routine of practice each kick and punch a thousand times a day every day. I enjoyed the discipline and fantasised about being a great martial arts master. My life revolved around martial arts and I could not imagine my life without martial arts, reading about them and thinking about them constantly. I practiced because it was so much fun and so exciting. I focused on just one thing really enjoying myself. At first I was awkward but with time I got better, my movements got smoother, most powerful and faster. My timing improved so that I could defeat opponents in sparring easily. My confidence was high.
One day during a supervised practice session with multiple opponents I got kicked so hard on the knee that I got seriously injured. I was shocked because there was supposed to be no contact in the session. At the time I was devastated and thought that my life was over and I had no purpose for living. Looking back on the experience it was an incredible gift. After the initial shock and devastation, which lasted over a year, I examined my life and decided to apply the discipline that I had learned from the martial arts to my study of science and mathematics. I made three decisions.
- I would focus totally on what I was going to learn.
- I would really enjoy myself during the study sessions.
- I would repeat everything I did in school or the next topic on the syllabus 10x even if it was simple and easy. I would do this regardless of how poor I was or how good I was.
- I would study daily.
Initially I saw little improvements in my ability to learn and competency in the subjects. However, after about six months when I had built a strong basic foundation I started to improve rapidly and my confidence increased. I got some great results and my belief around learning solidified. I can learn anything by repetition. As time went on I got my degree and then a PhD and I believe to this day I continue to improve following the same principles of disciplined practice.
My journey reminds me of the Japanese tree, which you have to water every single day and never miss a day. Initial it hardly grows at all in 5 years and then shoots to 10 feet tall in just one year. If your discipline is correct then you must carry on even when improvements are slow. With time you will attain mastery.
“The time that leads to mastery is dependent on the intensity of our focus.” Robert Greene
KEY PRACTICE NUMBER 31
- Make a list of three things that you really want to be good at and improve.
- Pick one thing you want to start with.
- Set a target level of performance.
- Decide on what you have to do to achieve your target.
- Decide on the frequency of practice. Is it daily, every other day or weekly?
- Mark the times and dates in your diary.
- Start at the exact time you have decided.
- Finish at the exact time you decided to finish.
- Keep going and trying your best until you succeed. No matter how difficult keep going and persist and persevere until you hit the target.
This is an excerpt from our book Discipline: 50 Keys to Success.
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