Monday, June 12, 2006

Blueprint for an Uncompromised Life - Part Two: Devotion to Development

Perhaps the key take-away idea from my forthcoming book is that greatness is the outcome of a prolonged developmental process. It is not merely something people are born with, nor is it solely the result of hard work. Greatness lies at the intersection between talents (inborn capacities), skills (acquired competencies), and interests (personality). When these three variables come together early in a person's career (or life), it is as if an emotional spontaneous combustion results. Psychologist Howard Gardner refers to this as a "crystallizing experience": an encounter with a field that is so profound and meaningful that it organizes and sparks all future efforts.

The developmental process of extraordinary achievement begins with immersing oneself in a field for the sheer joy of the immersion. Because the work fits so well with talents, skills, and interests, it no longer seems like work. It is a kind of purposeful play, but it is driven by what Maslow called the "peak experience"; by the sense of "flow" described by Csikszentmihalyi. Only later is this purposeful play channeled into directed efforts at mastery, through interactions with mentors. Developmentally, greatness begins in play.

It is ironic that most individuals fail to achieve their potential stature, not because they don't work, but because they have never found that purposeful play that results from crystallizing experiences. We fall into career fields without sampling what we'd truly love; we fall into trading styles based upon what we hear and what we're taught--not from purposeful play across markets and trading styles.

In Part One, I highlighted "constancy of purpose" as a crucial element of extraordinary achievement. This constancy doesn't come from guilt or even from normal motivation. It comes from a deep, emotional desire to sustain the flow experience by extending one's mastery. Every creator experiences a kind of runner's high and, like any runner, has to run every longer and faster to reach the experience. In that sense, greatness is a kind of positive addiction: it provides its own reward.

The longstanding truism in the research on greatness is that it takes at least a decade of dedicated effort to reach expert levels of performance in any field. That decade is typically guided by the mentorship of others who are accomplished, particularly as the developmental process proceeds from the achievement of competence to true expertise. In every performance field I have encountered, expert performers spend more time in learning, preparation, and practice than in actual performance. Indeed, their intrinsic levels of motivation drive them to do nothing but that. It is in the course of mastering a domain, that these performers master themselves and undergo deep psychological change. Mastery of any field inevitably also brings self-mastery.