No One Starts Out Great

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How many people do you know who are great at something? I spent my life talking to people like that. You might recognize some names, but you wouldn’t recognize most of them.

Those people have two things in common. First, they’re great at something. They’re great executives and first-line supervisors. The great ones include a television newscaster and a man who founded one of the great advertising agencies. There’s a champion bodybuilder and a world-renowned futurist. They’re all great at something. But here’s the second thing. None of them was born great.

Every one of them had to learn their craft. They all journeyed from novice to expert to greatness.

My father was a Lutheran pastor. Every Sunday, after the last service of the day, we ate our family dinner. Every Sunday, my father would ask us what we thought of that day’s sermon and how he could improve next time. My mother always spoke first. She always said the same thing: “I think it was the best sermon your father ever preached.”

That was my mother doing her part in making sure that my father heard something positive as the first thing. By her account, there were over 40 years of unbroken improvement. Too many stories of attaining greatness are like that. They make it seem like the progress was steady and even.

Punctuated Equilibrium

Paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge studied the fossil record to learn how species developed. The common view of evolution was that it was a continuous series of small changes. Gould and Eldredge found something different.

There was a long period were there were only small changes, but then there was a sudden burst of change. Sometimes they called it an “explosion.” That theory of how evolution happens is called “punctuated equilibrium.” It’s the way you become great.

Every Day in Some Small Way

People who become great use a conscious process of improvement to get there. They don’t leave improvement to chance. They track their progress, either by keeping records or journaling or both.

You can do the same thing. Set aside some time every day for self-improvement. Try reading helpful books for 15 minutes or half an hour a day.

Every day, pick something you can do better. It can be anything in your life. Do something during the day to make that improvement. Don’t try for big gains. Baby steps are best.

Incremental improvement doesn’t seem scary. After all, it’s baby steps. It’s small, doable things. Sure, you won’t get it right every time, but over time, you can trace improvement. Crucibles are different.

The Explosion and The Crucible

You may have heard the term “crucible.” Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas coined the term for situations that were difficult but held the promise of growth. Great growth. Explosive growth.

Usually, a crucible is imposed from outside. It might be an emergency. It might be an assignment or a position where, at first, you don’t know how you will get the job done.

When you talk to people who became great, you almost always hear a crucible story. They’ll tell you about the time they were scared to death. Sometimes, they tell you about the failure they had that they needed to come back from. The lesson for me is this. Big improvement steps are hard, uncomfortable, and scary.

Many times, crucibles are forced on people. But some people seek them out because of the great growth possibilities. One of those was an engineer I interviewed years ago. Her reason for pursuing those hard and scary assignments was simple. “No guts, no glory,” she said. Then she paused for a minute.

“I don’t want just any big project,” she said, “I want a dragon worth slaying.”

Bottom Line

If you want to be great at something, commit yourself to steady, intentional improvement. Remember that great growth happens in crucibles. Find your dragon worth slaying.

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