12 keys to being excellent at anything

The Harvard Business Review has an article entitled, Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything.  I actually haven’t read it yet, or at least at the point of writing this post I hadn’t.  I saw the title and thought that I’d like to read it, but then I thought it would be an interesting exercise if I would come up with my six keys, then compare them to the ones that HBR had.

So here are MY six keys to being excellent at anything:

1) You have to be passionate about it. It takes so much to be excellent at anything that if you don’t enjoy the experience, the hard work, the dedication it will take to get there, there’s very little chance you’ll ever get there.

2) Experience is mandatory.  This may be obvious, but its critical. In the immortal words of Allen Iverson, “Practice?!?”.  That’s right, practice.  If Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell taught me anything, it takes 10,000 hours to be great at something.

3) Be willing to learn. What experience can’t teach you, books can.  Or classes.  Or mentors.  The list goes on and on, but you have to be willing to educate yourself constantly if you want to be excellent at anything.

4) Singular focus. This one might be a little controversial, but my experience tells me if you want to be excellent at something, it almost has to be your single driving force.  Want to be excellent at a sport?  You can’t play other sports in the offseason.  You have to practice the sport you want to be excellent at no matter the season.  Very few have been able to be excellent at more than one thing at a time.

5) Work harder than everyone else.  And want it more than anyone else. Michael Jordan.  Jerry Rice.  Both considered by many to be the greatest to ever play their sport.  Both were known to be the most competitive freaks to suit up.  And probably most important, both were known to work harder than anyone else.  And say what you will about Tiger Woods, but he does this same thing.  No one puts in more time on the course than Tiger.

6) Believe in yourself.  Take two people with the exact same skill in something.  One has confidence in themselves.  One doesn’t.  Who do you think’s going to be excellent?

Ok, so those are my six keys.  Looking at what the HBR article has…

1 – Pursue what you love.  Perfect, same as my first one.

2 – Do the hardest work first.  Interesting, I didn’t consider that.  Could debate it.

3 – Practice intensely.  Yep, have that one.

4 – Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses.  Man, I was so close to having this one.  I almost made one of mine, “Be humble and ask for advice.”  But then I changed it at the last minute to “Believe in yourself”.  I almost put the caveat that although you need to believe in yourself, you also have to be humble enough to ask for advice.  But I could easily say its part of my “Be willing to learn” as I mention the need for mentors.  So close :)

5 – Take regular renewal breaks.  Like it but didn’t think of it.

6 – Ritualize practice.  Ok, I get it, but seems similar to #3 on the list or at least could have been combined with it.

Seems HBR and I were on a similar tact with this.  Anyone else have some additions they’d like to make?


  1. @KathleneHestir on August 30, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    Great post! Should tie in your three tenets:) Be Known. Be Experts. Be Great.

  2. Katherine Melick on August 30, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks Jeff! I think humbly asking for advice is so important. No one is perfect and we can learn something from each and every person in our lives. Continual growth!

  3. Rene Smith on August 30, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Such simple, easy-to-follow advice! It’s great to be reminded that excellence is always within reach.

  4. Andrew Jones on August 30, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    This article just brings into stark reality why it totally sucks being a jack-of-all-trades :(

  5. Jeff Hilimire on August 30, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    I think sometimes a leader can’t strive for excellence in the way this article/post describes. In some cases, a leader should surround themselves with people that are excellent in their craft, but often the leader has to be more of a jack-of-all-trades in order to effectively achieve their goals.

  6. Thomas L. Strickland on August 30, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Being a jack-of-all-trades means you’re imminently flexible, provided we are willing to shift focus severely when the project or situation requires. Nothing says that your life pursuit has to be singular in order to be successful or rewarding.

  7. Andrew Jones on August 30, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    True, it has its advantages. But you’re not going to get your 10,000 hours in trying to do four things. This is something I’ve struggled with a long time. A few things I feel I’m good at, maybe even above average. But for all the stuff I can do, I don’t feel like I’m GREAT at any of it. I feel like at some point, I’ll have to make a decision on one of them.

  8. Thomas L. Strickland on August 30, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    A single year gives us 8,736 hours.* Okay, that’s most of the way there … provided you don’t sleep. So take away a generous 2,920 hours (8 hours a night), and that leaves us with 5,816 hours. To keep the math simple, let’s knock off the 816 hours and call it eating, checking email, having friends you barely see (2 hours, 15 minutes a day).

    That leaves us with 10,000 hours over two years to become a Gladwell-ian expert in a single field, providing we dedicate all of our efforts to that very end exclusively.

    But I don’t think that’s what is intended. In my off-work time, I run a non-profit theater company that produces two plays a year. I’ve calculated those volunteer hours for other reasons, so I know that about 400 hours of my year goes toward theater. These hours happen over several weeknights, a few weekends in the fall and spring. I’ve been at this for five years now, so I’ve got about 2,000 hours under my belt. If I keep doing this thing I love for another twenty years, then I’ll finally be at a place where Gladwell would call me an expert.

    And you know … I’m okay with that. I’d much rather develop as a well-rounded person over a quarter-century than make a bee-line for perfection in a single area in two years solid. It’s not about the destination, but the journey, after all.

    (Wow. That took a decidedly “Tuesdays With Morrie” / Oprah turn, didn’t it. Sorry about that.)

    * – I majored in English Lit, so I make no claims that my math skills are awesome.

  9. Tom Harris on August 30, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Great post. Here’s another good one I’ve read/heard many places:

    Get good at failing. On the way to excellence, your results may often fall short of your expectations. If you get hung up on perfection, you’ll slow yourself down. Getting better means failing quickly and often.

    Or, as Michael Jordan put it:

    “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

    This is one of the big pitfalls of conventional education, in my opinion. Most schools penalize failure and reward playing it safe. Meanwhile, video games are very effective learning engines (even if you’re just learning to play video games), because (in most cases), failure is no big deal. You learn quickly by failing a lot in a short amount of time.

  10. jayjhun on August 30, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Problem solving is an art/skill that I fear may get lost in the shuffle but one other key to success that i’d humbly submit.

  11. jayjhun on August 30, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Problem solving is an art/skill that I fear may get lost in the shuffle but one other key to success that i’d humbly submit.

  12. Steve Swanson on August 30, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Very good Jeff, goes on my wall of good shit!!!

  13. Steve Swanson on August 30, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    Very good Jeff, goes on my wall of good shit!!!

  14. Josh Milenthal on August 31, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    The similarities between your list and HBR’s list are eye-opening…excellence isn’t an untouchable goal, it’s something that can be achieved by anyone with the right mindset and skills –> it’s great to realize this.

  15. Rebecca Jarrett on August 31, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    I’m a big fan of #1. I don’t think anyone ever became an expert at something they were only moderately interested in, passion is a must. Great post!

  16. Jeff Hilimire on August 31, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Thanks and I completely agree, passion is a non-negotiable attribute for being excellent at anything. Even if you practice and work like crazy, put in your 10,000 hours and whatnot, you can’t fake passion and someone with it that works the same number of hours will always win out.

  17. K Keller on August 31, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Great post…It made me think.

    One comment that supports “Singular Focus”: It’s very important to know what you’re not…to know what not to do. That might sound like a trivial distinction, but it can be very helpful in selecting and prioritizing your activities. Some of the best strategy statements clearly express what to do and what not to do.

  18. Jeff Hilimire on August 31, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    Fail fast indeed. This applies well to leadership and startups as well as when striving for excellence. I often make this point when talking to companies about embracing emerging technology. It’s ok to fail, just do it quickly and keep learning.

    Thanks for the addition.

  19. Anonymous on September 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Regarding “Do the hardest work first” — It makes sense to attempt to tackle the hardest problems because the rest is easy. :)

    At the very least, you build awareness as to how high the bar is set. You may get lucky and your talent may be enough to to carry you to your goal but you’ll likely discover that you need more practice. Do you think that doing the hardest work first may result in you giving up prematurely?

  20. Ann Griffiths on September 27, 2010 at 9:18 am

    One of mine would be to surround yourself as far as possible with people who inspire, challenge and motivate you. Eliminate negative and non-costructive influences. Working with those whom you spark off is an incredible motivator and for me, a key to success.

  21. GS on November 12, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I think that what you want to be excellent at ought also be good for the human race, too.
    Would you want to be excellant at something that destroys mankind? Or “benefited only yourself or a few chosen ones? Is that really being excellent? Many people have claimed they wanted to benefit mankind, but for many, that is simply lip service. Think it through before you waste time and effort on what benefits few if any other people.

  22. Jeff Hilimire on December 1, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Excellent point on “being great at anything” George. While I agree that anyone that strives for greatness should have the morale fortitude to “do good”, I think this list unfortunately could be used for evil. That sounds so comic-booky. But if you wanted to be the world’s best evil dictator, you should probably follow this advice as well.

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