Day 1: Composition
It is a fact: you play at the level at which you practice. Consistently good practice leads to consis-
tently good play. It sharpens your talent. Successful people understand this. They value practice and
develop the discipline to do it. If you want to sum up what lifts most successful individuals above
the crowd, you could do it with four little words: a little bit more. Successful people pay their dues
and do all that is expected of them—plus a little bit more.
How are you currently practicing to improve your talent? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Do you approach practice as an opportunity or an obligation? Explain. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
What do you expect to accomplish from practicing? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
THE POWER OF PRACTICE
There’s a myth about highly talented people—it’s that they are simply born that way. But the truth is
that no people reach their potential unless they are willing to practice their way there. Recently I was
traveling with Tom Mullins, a former football coach who wrote The Leadership Game, which con-
tains successful leadership principles he gleaned from interviewing eight college national champion
football coaches. As I talked about the idea of practice with him, he nearly leaped out of his seat.
“Let me tell you, John,” he said, “all the national champion coaches told me the key to going from
good to great came in two areas: the preparation of the team and the practice of the players. They
were forever upgrading their preparation and sharpening their practices.” That made sense to me
because preparation positions talent and practice sharpens it.
Before we go any further, there are three things you need to know about practice:
1. Practice Enables Development
How do we grow and develop? Through practice. People refine old skills and acquire new ones
through practice. That is where the tension between where we are and where we ought to be propels
Former pro basketball player and U.S. senator Bill Bradley says that he attended a summer bas-
ketball camp when he was fifteen years old. There former college and pro basketball star “Easy” Ed
Macauley told him, “Just remember that if you’re not working at your game to the utmost of your
ability, there will be someone out there somewhere with equal ability who will be working to the ut-
most of his ability. And one day you’ll play each other, and he’ll have the advantage.”
If you desire to improve and develop, then you must practice. It allows you to break your own
records and outstrip what you did yesterday. Done correctly, practice keeps making you better than
you were yesterday. If you don’t practice, you shortchange your potential.
2. Practice Leads to Discovery
In one of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips, Charlie Brown laments to his friend Linus, “Life is just
too much for me. I’ve been confused from the day I was born. I think the whole trouble is that we’re
thrown into life too fast. We’re not really prepared.”
“What did you want,” Linus responds, “a chance to warm up first?”
We may not get a chance to warm up before entering childhood, but we can warm up by prac-
ticing the many activities we pursue once life has begun. And it is often during these “warm-ups”
that we learn valuable things about ourselves. If you commit yourself to practice, here are a few
things you are likely to learn:
Practice both shows and builds commitment. The true test of commitment is action. If you say,
for example, that you are committed to becoming a great dancer but you never practice, that’s not
commitment. That’s not dance. That’s just talk. But when you follow through and practice, you
show your commitment. And every time you follow through, your commitment becomes stronger.
How can you tell when someone is committed? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In what area of your life do you reflect characteristics of commitment? What are you committed to? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
How can you utilize or further incorporate your talent in those areas of your life where you are most
Your performance can always be improved. Consultant and author Harvey Mackay says, “A good
leader understands that anything that has been done in a particular way for a given amount of time
is being done wrong. Every single performance can be improved.”
Since there is always a better way, your job is to find it.
What types of ruts do you find yourself falling into?
How do you pull yourself out?
The “sharpening” process is better in the right environment. You can’t discover your abilities and
improve your skills in an environment where you are not allowed to make mistakes. Improvement
always requires some degree of failure. You must seek a practice area where experimentation and
exploration are allowed.
What is the common reaction to failure in your current environment?
What is your natural response to failure?
What changes can you make to give yourself more freedom to fail while improving your talent?
You must be willing to start with small things. Human relations expert Dale Carnegie advised,
“Don’t be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it
makes you that much stronger. If you do little things well, the big ones tend to take care of them-
selves.” As you first start to practice, the gains you make may be small.
But they will grow. They compound like interest.
List the small and large gains—related to your talent development—you have made in the last two
Very small differences consistently practiced will produce results. A curious thing happens when
you practice. At first the gains are small, as I said. Then they begin to grow.
But there comes a time, if you persevere, when the gains become small again. However, at this
season these small gains make big differences. In the Olympics, for example, the difference be-
tween the gold medalist and the athletes who finish without a medal is often just hundredths of a
There is a price to pay to reach the next level. One of the things you often learn in practice is what
it will cost to reach a goal or go to the next level. As you get ready to practice, I recommend that you
abide by the Taxicab Principle, which is something I learned traveling overseas: before you get into
the cab, find out how much the ride is going to cost.
If you don’t, you may end up paying much more than the ride is worth! As you practice, keep in
mind the words of screenwriter Sidney Howard, who remarked, “One half of knowing what you
want is knowing what you must give up before you get it.”
What season of practice are you currently in—are you making large or small gains? __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
What is the next level for your talent? ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
What are you willing to sacrifice to reach this next level? ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Many people regard practice as an essentially negative experience. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The best way to make practice exciting is to think of it in terms of discovery and development.
3. Practice Demands Discipline
One reason some people see practice as a grind is that it requires discipline. Even activities with
intense physical demands also require a lot of mental discipline. Bill McCartney, former national
championship head football coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, used to tell me, “Mental preparation
to physical preparation is four to one.”
Developing discipline always begins with a struggle. There is no easy way to become a disciplined
person. It has nothing to do with talent or ability. It is a matter not of conditions, but of choice. But
once the choice is made and practice becomes a habit, two things become obvious. The first is a
separation between the person who practices and the one who doesn’t. Cyclist Lance Armstrong
emphasizes that “success comes from training harder and digging deeper than others.” He would
know, having won a record seven Tour de France championships. The second thing that emerges is a winning spirit. The harder you work, the harder it becomes to surrender.
How much do others with your same talent practice?
Less Aboutthe Same More
What is their level of success compared to your level of success?
Less About the Same More
Greek philosopher Aristotle observed, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We
do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have
acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” That habit
is developed during practice.
THE FIVE PILLARS OF PRACTICE
I talked to a lot of leaders and coaches about practice while I was working on this chapter.
And each one of them had a slightly different take on how to approach practice effectively.
Warren Bottke is a PGA master professional who has helped thousands of amateurs and profes-
sionals improve their golf game. As Warren and I talked, we settled on five elements upon which
great practice rests.
Pillar #1: An Excellent Teacher or Coach One of my core beliefs is that everything rises and falls on
leadership. I teach that truth to businesspeople all the time, but it also applies in other areas of life,
People who perform at their peak practice effectively, and they practice effectively under the lead-
ership of a great teacher.
Howard Hendricks, professor and chairman of the Center for Christian Leadership in Dallas,
says, “Teaching is causing people to learn.” How do good coaches do that? In part, they inspire.
But good teachers do more than that. They tailor their instruction to their students. A good teacher
or coach, like all good leaders, knows the strengths and weaknesses of each person. He knows
whether a person is a right-brain creative/intuitive type or a left- brain analytical type. He knows
whether a person learns visually, verbally, or kinesthetically. And he can tell when someone needs a
pat on the back or a kick in the pants.
Who is teaching you? What are you learning from this person? Do you see your talent growing under
his or her leadership? ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In addition to or in place of your current teacher, who else could effectively guide your talent? How
will you enlist the help of this person?
Pillar #2: Your Best Effort
Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie declared, “There is no use whatever trying to
help people who do not help themselves. You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing
to climb himself.” People don’t improve and reach their potential without putting forth great effort.
That’s why composer and orchestra leader Duke Ellington used to make a simple but demanding
request of the musicians who played for him. “Just give me your best,” he asked. Ellington worked
hard and expected the same from others, knowing that hard work would not kill anybody (although
it does seem to scare some people half to death).
What does your best look like?
What motivates you to give your best?
Pillar #3: A Clear Purpose
Research scientist Warren Bottke says that when he works with a new client, the first thing he does
is to establish the purpose of practice. That usually means identifying a specific goal for each prac-
tice session. But the overarching purpose of practice is always improvement leading to excellence.
Identify your talent goals:
What specifically are you trying to improve?
How can you measure your improvement?
Pepperdine University sociology professor Jon Johnston makes a distinction between excellence
and mere success:
Success bases our worth on a comparison with others. Excellence gauges our value by mea-
suring us against our own potential. Success grants its rewards to the few but is the dream of
the multitudes. Excellence is available to all living beings but is accepted by the . . . few. Success
focuses its attention on the external—becoming the tastemaker for the insatiable appetites of
the . . . consumer. Excellence beams its spotlight on the internal spirit . . .
Excellence cultivates principles and consistency.¹
As you practice, make excellence your target, and give your best to achieve it. Willow Creek
founder Bill Hybels says, “Most people feel best about themselves when they have given their very
best.” If excellence is your goal and you arrive at it, you will be satisfied even though you never
Pillar #4: The Greatest Potential
Have you ever noticed that two people on the same team with the same coach can practice with
equal focus, effort, and purpose and have very different results? It’s a fact that equal practice does
not mean equal progress. I learned this fact when I was nine. By then I had been taking piano
lessons for a couple of years. As I played, I thought to myself, I’m pretty good at this. But then one
day I played at a piano recital, and it turned out to be a reality check. Elaine, a girl who had been tak-
ing piano lessons for only six months, played a more difficult piece than mine. How could she be
so much better than I was so quickly? The answer is simple: her potential was much greater than
mine. It didn’t matter how much focused effort I put into practicing the piano. I was never going to
go as far as Elaine could. Music wasn’t one of my best gifts. I enjoyed playing, but I wasn’t going to
achieve excellence in it.
How have you shown real potential in the area in which you believe you have talent? (If you discover
that this area is not your real area of talent, brainstorm about the areas of your life where you have
shown real potential—where your efforts have exceeded the efforts of those attempting the same
Once you figure out where your greatest potential lies, then start to practice there. If you don’t,
not only will you fail to increase your ability, but you’ll eventually lose some of the ability you start-
ed with. You see, having potential works exactly opposite from the way a savings account does.
When you put your money in a savings account, as time goes by, your money compounds and
grows. The longer you leave it untouched, the more it increases. But when it comes to potential, the
longer you leave it untouched, the more it decreases. If you don’t tap into your talent, it wastes away.
One way you can get the best from yourself is to set high standards for your greatest potential.
Dianne Snedaker, co founder and general partner of Wingspring, advises,
If you are interested in success, it’s easy to set your standards in terms of other people’s accom-
plishments and then let other people measure you by those standards. But the standards you
set for yourself are always more important. They should be higher than the standards anyone
else would set for you, because in the end you have to live with yourself, and judge yourself, and
feel good about yourself. And the best way to do that is to live up to your highest potential. So
set your standards high and keep them high, even if you think no one else is looking. Somebody
out there will always notice, even if it’s just you.
You can tell that you’re not making the most of your potential when the standards set for you by
others are higher than the ones you set for yourself. Anytime you require less of yourself than your
boss, spouse, coach, or other involved person does, your potential will go untapped.
What are the standards others have set for you?
What are the additional standards you have set for yourself?
Pillar #5: The Right Resources
Even if you do many things right, including finding a good coach or mentor, focusing in your area
of greatest potential, giving your best, and doing so with purpose, you can still fall short without the
right resources. During World War II, General George Patton was one of the most talented and
accomplished commanders for the Allied forces. He was innovative, focused, and fearless. He was
a good strategist and tactician. And he possessed the tanks and men to strike boldly against the
Nazis to help bring an end to the war. But one thing he often lacked: gasoline. Without fuel, his
tanks were useless.
Resources are nothing more than tools you need to accomplish your purpose. Every human en-
deavor requires resources of some kind. To practice well, you need to be properly equipped.
Describe your ideal environment for growth.
How will you seek out or begin to create this environment?
What are the tools you need to further develop your talent? How will you gain access to these re-
TALENT + PRACTICE = A TALENT-PLUS PERSON
PUTTING THE TALENT-PLUS FORMULA INTO ACTION
There is one more secret to successful practice that will help you to sharpen your talent, and I be-
lieve it elevates top achievers above everyone else. It’s summed up by the phrase “a little extra.”
Here’s what I believe it takes for someone to become a talent-plus person in the area of practice:
1. A Little Extra Effort
Historian Charles Kendall Adams, who was president of Cornell University and later the University
of Wisconsin, observed, “No one ever attains very eminent success by simply doing what is re-
quired of him; it is the amount of excellence of what is over and above the required that determines
greatness.” All accomplishments begin with the willingness to try—and then some. The difference
between the ordinary and the extraordinary is the extra!
A little extra effort always gives a person an edge. Art Williams, the founder of Primerica Financial
Services, once told me, “You beat 50 percent of the people in America by working hard; you beat 40
percent by being a person of honesty and integrity and standing for something; and the last 10 per-
cent is a dogfight in the free enterprise system.” If you want to win that dogfight, then do a little
What is the “little extra” you will start doing today?
2. A Little Extra Time
Successful people practice harder and practice longer than unsuccessful people do. Success expert
Peter Lowe, who has gleaned success secrets from hundreds of people who are at the top of their
professions, says, “The most common trait I have found in all successful people is that they have
conquered the temptation to give up.”
Giving a little extra time requires more than just perseverance. It requires patience. The Law of
Process in my book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership says, “Leadership develops daily, not in a
day.” That can be said of any talent we try to cultivate and improve.
As you work to give a little extra time to your efforts, it is wise to maintain a longer view of the
process of improvement. Such a perspective really helps. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who cre-
ated the memorial to the American presidents at Mount Rushmore, was asked if he considered his
work to be perfect. It’s said he replied, “Not today. The nose of Washington is an inch too long. It’s better that way, though. It will erode to be exactly right in 10,000 years.” Now that’s patience!
3. A Little Extra Help
Anybody who succeeds at anything does so with the help of others. Alex Haley, the author of Roots,
used to keep a reminder of that in his office. It said, “If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you
know he had help getting there.”
I know that in my professional pursuits, I’ve always needed help. And I’ve been fortunate that oth-
ers were willing to give it to me. Early in my career in the 1970s, I contacted the top ten leaders in
my field and offered them $100 to meet with me for thirty minutes so that I could ask them ques-
tions. Many granted my request, and (fortunately for my thin wallet at the time) most declined to ac-
cept the $100. And today, I still make it a point to meet with excellent leaders from whom I desire to
When I think about the ways that people have helped me in all aspects of my life, I am humbled
and grateful. Some have given me advice. Others have presented me with opportunities, and a few,
like my wife, Margaret, have lavished unconditional love on me. I know I am a very fortunate man.
Who has helped you? Who do you feel comfortable asking for help? How can you reciprocate for that
4. A Little Extra Change
Let’s face it. Most people are resistant to change. They desire improvement, but they resist chang-
ing their everyday routine. That’s a problem because, as leadership expert Max DePree says, “We
cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” To sharpen your talent through
practice, you need to do more than just be open to change. You need to pursue change—and you
need to do it a little bit more than other achievers. Here’s what to look for and how to focus your
energy to get the kinds of changes that will change you for the better:
• Don’t change just enough to get away from your problems—change enough to solve them.
• Don’t change your circumstances to improve your life—change yourself to improve your cir-
• Don’t do the same old things expecting to get different results—get different results by doing
• Don’t wait to see the light to change—start changing as soon as you feel the heat.
• Don’t see change as something hurtful that must be done—see it as something helpful that
should be done.
• Don’t avoid paying the immediate price of change—if you do, you will pay the ultimate price of
When you have worked hard in practice to sharpen your talent and you begin to see results,
please don’t think that it’s time to stop practicing. You never arrive at your potential— you can only
continue to strive toward it. And that means continual practice.
Charles Swindoll’s friend William Johnson, who owns the Ritz-Carlton hotels, was pleased when
the organization won the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award. When Swindoll congratulated
him, Johnson quickly gave others the credit for the achievement. But he also said that it made him
and others in the organization work even harder to earn the respect that came with the award. John-
son summed up his attitude: “Quality is a race with no finish line.” If you don’t strive for excellence,
then you are soon settling for acceptable. The next step is mediocrity, and nobody pays for medi-
ocre! If you want to reach your potential and remain a talent-plus person, you have to keep prac-
ticing with excellence.
How disciplined are you when it comes to practice? Track yourself. Use a practice journal to record
your practice sessions for thirty days. Write down not only when you practice and for what duration,
but also make notes of what you worked on and how it went. At the end of that period, review your
Elmer G. Letterman asserted, “The average human being in any line of work could double his pro-
ductive capacity overnight if he began right now to do all the things he knows he should do, and to
stop doing all the things he knows he should not do.” How can you apply this piece of wisdom to
your practice routine?
What currently wastes your time? What task do you perform as a matter of habit that could be re-
placed by something that would sharpen your talent?
“Audit” yourself and reinvent your practice routine.
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