Tag: Geoff Colvin

The Secret Ingredient for Success: The Brutal Discipline Necessary for Self-Assessment

“Discipline is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong…
Discipline is what makes us responsible toward ourselves [and] toward the society in which we live.”
— Massimo Vignelli, Vignelli: From A to Z


Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, authors of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well, came out with an op-ed in the New York Times.

The interesting argument, one that is echoed by Charles Darwin, is that the to success is a brutal self-assessment.

What happens to organizations and people when they find obstacles in their paths?

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.

LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we — like Mr. Chang — question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

In interviews we did with high achievers… we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavoured to achieve them.

In part an accurate self-assessment allows for the feedback necessary to grow. It's the evidence you need to move forward. It doesn't matter if it comes from nobodies or somebodies, a coach or anyone else. Which is precisely the point in being open to what others have to say if you are really interested in improving your own skills. The discipline of self-assessment is only the start. It produces knowledge that allows us to understand the edge of our competency, which is the key to learning. What you do with that knowledge matters and there is a difference between the good and the great.

Average performers believe their errors are caused by things they don't controla fixed mindset if there ever was one. Top performers, however, as Geoff Colvin writes in is book, Talent is Overrated, “believe they are responsible for their errors.”

Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have though through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired. (more)

It's precisely the combination of a brutal self assessment and a growth mindset that tilts that increases the odds we become better. And these skills come down to discipline.

As Anna Deavere Smith wrote in Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind,

Discipline — both mental and physical — is crucial.


Stretching yourself to learn new things

Carol Dweck, Daniel Coyle, and Noel Tichy all point out that you need to stretch to learn new things.

First, this from Carol Dweck …

My colleagues and I have conducted interventions with adolescents in which they learn that their brains and intellect are malleable. They discover that when they stretch themselves to learn new things, their neurons form new connections and they can, over time, enhance their intellectual skills. Compared to a control group that learned only study skills, these students showed marked improvements in motivation, and their declining grades were sharply reversed. Researchers Catherine Good and Joshua Aronson have found similar effects. In studies led by David Yeager, high school students who were taught a malleable view of their intellectual and social skills showed positive changes in their grades, stress level, conduct (including aggression), and health that lasted over the course of the school year.

Second, this passage from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. … the underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The key word is “barely.”

Finally, this passage from Deliberate Practice:

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Update: This passage from The Art of Learning fits as well:

Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process (albeit without our psychological baggage). As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So the slow, lumbering creature goes on a quest for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can come from.

What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Talent Is Overrated

Practice activities are worthless without useful feedback about the results.

Here is a wonderful excerpt from Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition – knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.

Metacognition is important because situations change as they play out. Apart from its role in finding opportunities for practice, it plays a valuable part in helping top performers adapt to changing conditions…[A]n excellent businessperson can pause mentally and observe his or her own mental processes as if from the outside:…Am I being hijacked by my emotions? Do I need a different strategy here? What should it be?

…Excellent performers judge themselves differently from the way other people do. They’re more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay. The best performers judge themselves against a standard that’s relevant for what they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare with the performance of competitors they’re facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare with the best known performance by anyone in the field…

…If you were pushing yourself appropriately and have evaluated yourself rigorously, then you will have identified errors that you made. A critical part of self-evaluation is deciding what caused those errors. Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired…

…Since excellent performers go through a sharply different process from the beginning, they can make good guesses about how to adapt. That is, their ideas for how to perform better next time are likely to work…They approach the job with more specific goals and strategies, since their previous experience was essentially a test of specific goals and strategies; and they’re more likely to believe in their own efficacy because their detailed analysis is more effective than the vague, unfocused analysis of average performers. Thus their own effectiveness can help give them the crucial motivation to press on, powering a self-reinforcing cycle.


Still curious? Read the book and understand the difference between practice and deliberate practice.