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July 2012

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Going for gold

What does it take to be the best? Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10 000 hours of practice (combined with being in the right place at the right time). Some say hard work and luck.

For an Olympic athlete to win gold requires more than hours of practice and good fortune. It demands real dedication and as Stanford Payne (p.45) writes in this month’s coaching column, it takes knowing that you’re able enough to overcome any obstacles in your race to gold.

You may wonder why it is important to be the best – why should you reach for the top? In Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, he writes about the rush to be mediocre, why standing out is better than fitting in – and how to avoid settling for second best.

People fly across the world to eat dinner at top restaurants. HR executives open up their budgets for the salary demands of best employees. Voters wait in line for candidates they believe in. Our culture celebrates superstars. The rewards go to the number one product or song, organisation or person.

There’s room at the top for only a few. Scarcity makes being at the top aspirational. So why the scarcity? Simple – most competitors quit before they’ve put in the hard yards to reach the top.

You may think you’re already working as many hours as you can; you’ve already tried everything you can. It’s just not that easy – being the best is worth so much that few can do it. Scarcity carries a premium.

And there is ‘The Dip’ before you can be the best. It’s the long slog between starting and mastery. It’s the difference between beginner’s luck and real accomplishment. Scarcity is the secret to value – if there wasn’t ‘The Dip’, there’d be no scarcity. People strive to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but looking at a typical resumé of a CEO, you will see a 25-year dip before landing the job. For a quarter of a century the CEO kept his/her head down and did as told. The top competitor exceeded targets, worked longer hours and gave more than expected. Day in and day out, year after year.

Being a CEO may be easy, but it’s tough getting there. If it was easy, there’d be too many people vying for the job and CEOs wouldn’t get paid as much, would they? So, as Godin explains it, to become the best, quit doing the stuff where you can’t be the best. That leaves you the resources to invest in getting through ‘The Dip’. *

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