Compounding skills & abilities

TL;DR: When we see greatness in other people, we often attribute too much of that greatness to natural ability, and discount the effort over time that has enabled that person to get there. But the reality is skills and abilities compound at a high rate, and if you understand the power of compounding you can understand how persistent effort over a prolonged time can build into skills and abilities that appear magical. Armed with this knowledge, you too can achieve your own version of greatness, as long as you have the faith and dedication to try.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

What appears as greatness or genius is, in the majority of cases, the result from years of diligent, hard work. It only appears as ‘genius’ because the steps to get there are so long and obfuscated to the average person that it seems incomprehensible. It seems like magic. But what people aren’t seeing is the thousands of hours, sacrifices and late nights put in to the perfection of a given skill or craft. They don’t see any of the inputs, they only see the output, and they assume that someone must have been born with a particular talent. This is a limiting way to view the world – it is a ‘fixed mindset’, not a ‘growth mindset’.

The reality is that skills and expertise compound over time. They compound at a high rate. They compound for a number of reasons, including the fact that as you get better, you get more opportunities and exposure. People will ‘pass you the puck’ once you’re good enough to play. More doors will open – when you’re a beginner, you don’t even know certain doors exist, but as you dive deeper down the rabbit hole you’ll find opportunities you could never imagine. Don’t ask me how it works, it just does.

Perhaps the simplest example of all this was my career as a runner – there’s nothing unique about my lineage that would suggest I would have been one of the top Canadian middle distance runners in high school – instead, I believe the majority of my success stems from where I lived and where I went to early grade school. My house was about half a mile from school, which as a youngster was just far enough that I could run that distance if I wanted to. Turns out I often did run to school because I was late for class. By the time we started competitive sports in grade 3 or 4, I had a cardiovascular fitness that was way beyond any of my classmates. Without any formal training I easily blew away the competition in cross-country and track and field events. It was the early ‘training’ I had given myself that had compounded over years to provide an insurmountable lead among my peers. And because success breeds success, I continued training, got coaching and extended my lead well into high school. I wasn’t a particularly gifted runner, but I gained an edge early, and that compounded at a marvelous rate.

This same phenomenon can be seen in almost any aspect of life. There is the widely touted parable of Bill Gates being one of the first people to log 10,000 hours on a personal computer, which gave him the edge to later start Microsoft and lead the software revolution. Or take Mozart, he was composing and entertaining European royalty from the age of 5. Clearly he had some natural gifts, but it’s also true his life literally revolved around music from day one. By the time he reached maturity as an adult, he had such a vast pool of experience that composing the work he did came naturally. But you don’t need the example of Bill Gates or Mozart to see it in action. Anytime you see someone who amazes you with their abilities (great or small), it’s likely they’ve put in a mountain of effort over time to get that good. Granted, they may have been gifted with some natural predispositions, but without having honed those natural talents they wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

The point here is that we are all capable of approaching greatness, but we need to have the faith to take the first step in the journey, and the dedication to make the sacrifices needed to see it through. Every step after the first one gets a little easier, and the reward is certainly worth it. What appears impossible today, can be a reality tomorrow, but you have to have faith. Invest the time, make the sacrifices, go beyond the ordinary, and you’ll see your efforts compound over time into mastery and greatness.

And remember – enjoy the journey!

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