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What It Takes to Be Great

Simply put, passion is the engine that drives excellence. It is what motivates us to continue pursuing our dreams when times get tough, when we get tired, or when others tell us we can't possibly succeed.
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When I teach college courses, students often ask me, "How do I get an A in your class?" When they learn that it takes reading, studying and doing well on exams, their question then becomes, "How do I pass your class?"

There are lots of reasons why we lower our expectations when faced with a challenging goal. Yes, at some point we all do it. It could be we lack the desire, time, or focus needed to succeed. Or the big one -- we don't want to fail.

But for many people, being average seems inevitable. When we witness the extraordinary feats of Olympic athletes or serve under an exceptionally bright boss, it's easy to believe they possess some innate talent that we don't have. They are special; we are not.

Once we embrace this mindset, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We quit before we begin.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be this way. We can all excel and achieve great things.

Here's why:

Success has very little to do with natural giftedness. Over 30 years of scientific research is unequivocal on this point -- great people are made, not born.

Basketball great Michael Jordan certainly showed talent early on, but it was his hard work and focus that made him an exceptional athlete.

In contrast, Ursula Burns beat the odds. Raised by a single mother in a New York City housing project, Ursula went on to graduate from Columbia University. She's now the CEO of Xerox and the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

These stories underscore what the research tells us -- great people don't rest on their laurels or let adversity hold them back. They create and capitalize on the conditions needed for their success, and then relentlessly pursue making it happen.

So what does it take to be great?

Follow your passion. Sounds trite, but it's not. Becoming great at something is not easy. It takes years of hard work and self-sacrifice to reach the top. To sustain this level of effort demands passion for what you do.

Famed expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson sums up the connection between passion and performance this way: "When it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love, because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good."

Baseball hall-of-famer Carl Yastrzemski discovered his passion for baseball as a young boy while playing on sandlot teams with this father. Years later, he described his love of the game this way, "I think about baseball when I wake up in the morning. I think about it all day and I dream about it at night. The only time I don't think about it is when I'm playing it."

Simply put, passion is the engine that drives excellence. It is what motivates us to continue pursuing our dreams when times get tough, when we get tired, or when others tell us we can't possibly succeed. And when passion and performance meet, we experience our greatest satisfaction and impact in life.

Are you living your passion?

Practice, practice, practice. Swimming great Mark Spitz famously observed, "If you fail to prepare, you're prepared to fail. "

Passion prepares us for greatness, but practice paves the way.

The mini-successes that accompany dedicated practice give us the competence and the confidence we need to persevere and prevail. When you nail the presentation you've worked on for weeks, it gives you the ability and self-assurance to do it again.

Top performers across domains -- from athletics to business, music, and medicine -- know this, and work daily to perfect their crafts.

But it is how they work that sets them apart. Instead of playing to their strengths -- a characteristic of amateurs -- experts focus on improving what they are not good at.

Benjamin Franklin didn't start out a great writer. Chided by his father for writing letters to a friend that "lacked eloquence," Franklin desperately wanted to improve his writing. He developed a rigorous training regimen that included transcribing from memory passages from famous works... and then putting them in his own words.

Unbeknownst to young Benjamin, he was engaging in what psychologists call "deliberate practice" -- highly structured activities designed to eliminate deficiencies and improve performance.

It's not an easy process; however, according to Ericsson, "It is only by working at what you can't do that you turn into the expert you want to become."

Harness the Power of People. Behind every successful person is a committed support network.

Michael Phelps has his mother and coach. Bill Gates had his parents. And former slave, scientist, and inventor George Washington Carver had Mariah Watkins, his landlord, who inspired him to make a difference with the charge, "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people."

Winning people surround themselves with mentors, cheerleaders, and coaches -- individuals who point them in the right direction, motivate them to keep going, and push them hard to reach the top.

In their relentless pursuit of excellence, elite performers crave feedback and adjust their performance accordingly. Because self-assessment is notoriously inaccurate, we need people in our lives who tell us, objectively, how we are doing, and provide the resources and insights needed for improvement.

In your pursuit of greatness, avoid energy vampires -- people who suck the life out of you by criticizing your ideas and efforts without offering any positive advice.

Surround yourself with people who are committed to your success and hold you accountable. Ideally, include those equally jazzed about what you are doing. Imagine training for a marathon by yourself!

Do you have a group of dedicated mentors, cheerleaders, and coaches in your life? I hope so. If you want to perform at a world-class level you can't do it alone; you need people in your corner rooting for you and pushing you on.

In my next few posts, I'll explain how to harness the power of passion, practice, and people to achieve your best in life and work... to become great!

Until then, remember that our potential is defined not by innate talent, but by our willingness to work hard, in the right way, in the pursuit of something we love.

Send your thoughts or questions to me at

Dr. Frank Niles is an adventure athlete, social scientist, executive coach, and speaker. Learn more at

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