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Want to be a genius? Learn to focus like a laser beam

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All successful people have one thing in common -- they spent more than 10,000 hours learning and developing their skills.

That message that's been pounded into your head relentlessly since your toddling days -- "you can do anything you set your mind to" -- seems to actually have a scientific basis in fact.

Some experts and authors studying achievement are finding that mastery of any skill or subject be learned by anyone -- anyone -- who puts their mind to it and works hard to achieve it. The bottom line is that genius is the result of lots of hard work, and not just the fortune of having the right match-up of genes.

David Shenk, for one, says that everyone, regardless of genetic makeup or background, has the potential to excel at a chosen field. Annie Murphy Paul recently reviewed David Shenk's new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong. Shenk argues that we have before us not a “talent scarcity” but a “latent talent abundance.” Shenk states that "the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our ‘un­actualized potential.’ ”

As Shenk reveals, science is revealing the attainment of "genius" to be the product of highly concentrated effort. In her review of his book, Annie Paul cites a passage that describes the work of the psychologist Anders Ericsson, who wondered if he could train an ordinary person to perform extraordinary feats of memory:

"When Eric­sson began working with a young man identified as S.F., his subject could, like most of us, hold only seven numbers in his short-term memory. By the end of the study, S.F. could correctly recall an astonishing 80-plus digits. With the right kind of mental discipline, Ericsson and his co-­investigator concluded, 'there is seemingly no limit to memory performance.'”

Shenk also cites some of history's great achievers — Ted Williams and Michael Jordan, Mozart and Beethoven — as examples of individuals who worked hard day and night to master their chosen fields.

Is that the key to extraordinary success, then?  Persistently, single-mindedly and doggedly working at something until mastery is achieved? Malcolm Gladwell also seems to agree, at least in part, with this notion. In his recent work, Outliers, Gladwell looked at people who rose above the rest and achieved incredible success in their respective endeavors.

Birth date -- even the time of year you are born -- seem to weigh in on your success prospects in a given field. But an interesting point Gladwell makes is that all people successful in their respective fields all have one thing in common: they have spent at least 10,000 hours learning and internalizing and perfecting their crafts. That applies to all the top artists, musicians, writers, and IT leaders.  They all spent at least 10,000 hours or more doing what they do. That's at least a solid five years or more of dedicated work.

Shenk concurs, saying the key to success is practice, practice, practice for years and years.  “You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation,” he writes. “You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.”

What Shenk and Gladwell also say here is that failure is an important element of any success story. The years of relentless practice result in incredible learning and relearning of what works and doesn't work. That, apparently gets you much farther in the world than a pair of good genes.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure