Key to success: master your craft

Robert F. Smith was a shy chemical engineer from Denver, CO who made the shift from his profession to becoming an investment banker, and then founded what is now one of the biggest private equity firms in the United States. Early in life, Smith already embraced the concept of mastery of his craft as a key to success. This is how he managed to gain a foothold in the private equity business and managed an estimated $26 billion in capital.

Robert Smith

“There is no substitute for becoming an expert and being the best in your craft,” Smith said in a conversation with black students at Columbia Business School on March 25, 2017. For Smith, this meant always gaining more knowledge and information on his trade, especially when he started looking for new sources of capital in the Middle East in the 2000. He said this involves “building a learned capability” to gain the confidence of investors and the market.

Indeed, almost nobody achieves success in his or her profession or business without an expert or being the best he or she can be. In war, business, sports, academe, the arts, mastery has been identified as the common denominator among the outstanding men and women in their fields of endeavor.

In his book, “Mastery”, author Robert Greene studied the lives of great men and women to find out what made them tick. “I had noticed that many of these successful people, historical and contemporary, shared certain common traits. They had a way of thinking that was exceptionally fluid; they could adapt to almost any circumstance; when confronted with problems, they could look at them from novel perspectives and solve them. They could do all of this with surprising rapidity, as if they had developed an intuitive feel for their work. The icon of this would be Napoleon Bonaparte,” Greene said in an interview with Forbes Magazine.

robert greene
Robert Greene

His conclusion: “what tied all of this together was that these types had mastered their field.”

To achieve mastery, one must be willing to devote a lot of time perfecting his craft. Perhaps there is no better icon in basketball than Michael Jordan, who changed the way millions of basketball fans looked at the sport. Jordan’s work habits were legendary. He would hit the gym before the crack of dawn. And, at the end of basketball practice, he would still stay behind and shoot hundreds of free throws and other shots from different positions on the court.

Fortunately for those who want to pursue this path toward mastery, the secret about how to achieve it is no longer that much of a secret. “The secret ingredients are desire and time. We all know how much more deeply we learn when we are motivated. If a subject excites us, if it stirs our deepest curiosity, or if we have to learn because the stakes are high, we pay much more attention. What we absorb sinks in,” Greene said.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book “Outliers”, hatched the “10,000-hour rule” which postulates that to achieve expertise in any field, one needs to devote a minimum of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. On average, that entails being engaged in a craft or sport in “deliberate practice” over 10 years. There is no overnight express package for mastery; you have to devote long hours of practice before you reach that point.

An American photographer, Dan McLaughlin, tested the rule to find out if it works. In April 2010, McLaughlin quit his job as photographer to devote his time to learning how to play golf. He started by putting from one foot from the hole, and progressively moved farther from it as his skills improved. He hit his first drive 18 months after he started. After spending 5,000 hours, McLaughlin was already a handicap four player. He proved that the 10,000-hour rule did work.

Dan McLaughlin, from beginner to 4-handicapper in 5,000 hours of playing golf.



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