I’ve been obsessed with what sets top performers apart from the rest of the world for as long as I can remember. Part of this obsession is rooted in my desire to be great. I mean, who doesn’t want to be great at something? You’d be lying if you said you didn’t.
In my search for “secrets” to becoming great I’ve discovered that one of the most effective methods on one’s journey to mastery is to seek guidance from those at the top of their game.
The idea isn’t new. For centuries humans have mastered their trade by learning from people more accomplished than themselves. Aristotle studied philosophy under Plato, Leonardo Davincie studied painting under Andrea del Verrocchio and Mohamed Ali trained with Joe E. Martin. All of the people became great at what they did with the help of great teachers.
It’s easy to conclude that top performers reach their peak because of a natural disposition or an environmental advantage (like having a good teacher). That’s a popular opinion, but from where I’m standing it’s too simplistic. What other explanations could there be?
I’m here to tell you that top performers are not more accomplished because of one or two reason, but hundreds, possibly thousands (that may sound discouraging, but stay with me, this is actually good news).
When you read clear prose from a writer, watch a dancer move gracefully or listen to a musician play flawlessly, there’s an illusion of ease because many parts are put together to create one seamless movement.
How do you learn everything that needs to be learned so you too can perform complicated processes seamlessly? Dispersed acquisition.
Simply put: to master your craft you have to learn hundreds or thousands of small things. And they are learned from a variety of sources.It’s easy (and common) to attribute a person’s outstanding success to one or maybe two factors, but that’s never the case. Mastery is acquired through dispersion.
It’s not uncommon for people to use phrases like “He’s good because…” “It’s easier for her because…” or “It’s not fair because she…” These phrases often end with one or two justifications as to why the person in question is more capable. But this thought process is way too simplistic.
The more I think about mastery in this way the more I’m reminded of an anime I used to watch when I was in school called Dragon Ball Z. In the short video below one of the characters (Goku) draws energy from every person on the planet to create what’s called a spirit bomb. It’s a great visual example of what average performers need to do to become great.
The Top Performer Paradox
In theory, top performers should be most helpful on our journey to acquiring skill. After all, they know what challenges we need to overcome, how to overcome them and lots of tricks that can help us on our journey. However, I’ve found that very few people are great at breaking down what they do into bite size chunks for teaching. That requires a different skill set.
Actually, it’s often the case that top performers inspire and discourage. You can probably think of a time when you watched someone demonstrating his or her skill and thinking, “wow, how inspiring, I want to do that! If s/he can do it, why can’t I? Hmm, who am I kidding? I’ll never reach that level of skill!” I’ve had that dialogue go through my mind thousands of times. And through many conversations about the topic, it has been brought to my attention that many people feel both inspired and discouraged by top performers. Is it the same for you?
Your state of mind is one of the most important aspects in determining your success in just about any endeavour. Anything that induces you into a negative mindset is bad for progress. Therefore, looking at top performers for guidance may subconsciously be doing more harm than good.
Perpetual Growth and Acquisition from the Less Accomplished
Performers are around every corner. And this means there are opportunities to learn around each corner. Everyone performs with different levels of skill and it’s probably the case that most performers around you are average - this is good.
Average performers are often overlooked as resources to propel growth. They’re overlooked because people tend to attribute success to one or two things they’ve seen in those at the top of their game. So they fail to acknowledge what can be learned from (the more accessible) average performers. As I wrote above, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of small things that we need to master on the road to the top.
We acquire knowledge and mastery of skills in different areas, in different orders and at a different pace. If we pay attention to what skills and knowledge our peers possess, which we don’t, and learn from them, we become that bit closer to transforming ourselves into top performers.
For example, imagine you want to learn Spanish. You might admire someone who has reached a very high level in the language. While this person may be an inspiration to you, your belief that this person has some sort of advantage will probably stop you from learning much from them.
This goes back to what I was saying earlier about maintaining a positive mindset. Top performers can be intimidating to those who still have a long way to go. So what do I propose? Hang on; we’re almost there
But first I want to say that I’m yet to meet a top performer who was completely satisfied with his/her level of skill and knowledge. They always want more. They use every possible opportunity to take their knowledge and skills to the next level.
If you apply dispersed acquisition to your approach to development, you’ll maximise your capacity, with the added benefit of not feeling intimidated by those who have reached mastery.
What I’m saying, if it’s not already clear, is that you can learn a lot from those who are just like you. Forget top performers; learn from those who are around you.
I like the way dispersed acquisition is expressed in Japanese Kanji. These two symbols together mean teacher (Sensei)>>>先生 The first character means “before”. And the second character means “life” or “birth”. Together these characters mean “teacher”, or to put it another way “Person who has walked down a path before you”.
So you see, you can learn something from everyone because everyone has walked down a path you haven’t.
Direct your focus away from who is on the top, and place more importance on what the people around you can do that you can’t. And then work on lifting yourself higher.
I assure you, this will take you further. And learning from every possible opportunity is exactly what top performers do to become great.