I recently addressed students on what it takes to make it as a world-class elite performer in a range of different disciplines, including academia, sport, the arts, chess, or similar. I pointed to a study by Bloom (1985) who looked in depth at well over a hundred world-leading performers and traced back their history leading to their success, even back as young as five years old.

Bloom looked closely at the differing stages and the role played by coaches and parents too. In short, this study and others since have found that practice was key to success. No surprise, really. However, not just any practice; rather reflective, deliberate practice, which involves ongoing robust consideration of how to improve, while the practice is occurring, rather than just going through the motions, as some do.

four to six hours per day is optimal for reaching elite level performance and, after that, the law of diminishing returns occurs

Other research also suggests that four to six hours per day is optimal for reaching elite level performance and, after that, the law of diminishing returns occurs. The other interesting feature of much of the research is natural talent versus deliberate reflective practice, and there are two camps here. In Bloom’s research, he noted that parents often rated a sibling of the elite performer included in the study as having more natural talent as a child than the sibling who actually went on to become world class. This suggests that another factor in achieving success at such a level is determination, desire and grit.

Again, probably no surprise that these qualities are integral to success, but it fits with effort and academic success.

Much has been written about grit more recently, and that might be the focus for another post, but a clear message to students this week was that success requires some core ingredients: hard work and determination; regularly reflecting on and strategising how performance can further improve; time ‘in the saddle’; and, in addition, high quality teaching/coaching, good support systems and certain other resources don’t go astray. The core of these ingredients goes a long way to achieving success, though I don’t dismiss the fact that some activities come more easily to some than others.

I also firmly believe that we each have different areas of natural ability and inclination (such as Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory). However, while elite level performance and success is never guaranteed in competitive performance areas, one thing is certain: success in any area cannot be achieved in the absence of those attributes and qualities mentioned above. It can be assured that anyone standing on stage or on a podium this term at least had a work ethic that furnished their overall success.