Can You ‘Practice’ Your Way to Entrepreneurial Success?

By Rieva LesonskyBusiness on Main

A recent spate of books suggest that genius is something we learn — not something we’re born with. How does that apply to entrepreneurship?

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“A born genius.” “Born to be an entrepreneur.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard those common expressions before. Maybe they’ve even been said about you. Both convey the idea that those who are especially accomplished are wired that way — that our DNA almost guarantees our success.

Or, as a recent spate of books claim, does practice make perfect? In “The Talent Code,” author Daniel Coyle argues that our bodies produce myelin, a substance that helps us — through what he calls “deep practice” — acquire skill. In fact, Coyle writes, “The more time and energy you put into the right kind of practice … the more skill you get.”

Coyle’s not the first to propose that great accomplishment or genius can be acquired. In his best-selling book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell argues (based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University) that you can master anything by practicing it for 10,000 hours.

Becoming genius at something is, according to Coyle, a three-step process:

1. Deep practice: “Skill is a cellular process that grows through deep practice.”

2. Ignition: The switch that “supplies the unconscious energy for that growth.”

3. Master coaching: Getting help from “people who have the uncanny knack for combining those forces to grow talent in others.”

Coyle admits that deep practice is “a strange concept” because “it cuts against our intuition about talent.” If you subscribe to this theory, you’re embracing the idea that skill is acquired only after arduous trial and error, that success is all about technical prowess. While that is undoubtedly true sometimes, it sounds a bit robotic to me. In my more than 10,000 hours of experience in the entrepreneurial universe, I’ve found that entrepreneurial genius often results from gut feelings, identifying niches, and the artful (and frequently instant) adaptation of existing ideas.

In fact, in his book “Genius 101: Creators, Leaders, and Prodigies,” Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, says genius is born from both nature and nurture. Simonton says geniuses have “intelligence, enthusiasm and endurance.” In an interview with Time magazine, Simonton dismisses “practice makes perfect” as a "drudge theory." Instead, he says, “Deliberate practice is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating genius.”

In her study of actual entrepreneurs, Saras D. Sarasvathy — an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia — delineated the difference between successful corporate executives and “master entrepreneurs.” As reported in Inc. magazine, the executives were found to be more focused in their thinking. They “set a goal and diligently seek the best ways to achieve it.” The entrepreneurs, on the other hand, were more spontaneous, “brilliant improvisers” who instead of having concrete goals, created them “on the fly.”

If entrepreneurs got to build their businesses in a bubble, perhaps practice alone could beget genius. But so much of what we do depends on outside factors, and no amount of practice or coaching can prepare us for that. That’s where the innate ability to fly by the seat of your pants, to take advantage of “happy” accidents, to create your own luck comes in handy.

Entrepreneurs are often celebrated for being innovative, inventive and open to risk. Those are all characteristics most people would claim they’re born with. Spending 10,000 hours learning to be innovative seems oxymoronic to me. And the truth is, I could spend 10,000 hours (and many more) practicing, and I could never sing like Jennifer Hudson, paint like Monet, or swing a bat like my childhood hero, Mickey Mantle.

Good technique does not a genius make. While practice indeed may make perfect (and you can’t argue with the need for good mentors and coaches), you can’t perfect what you don’t possess. I think the most important component of Coyle’s three-part equation is “ignition.” Every engine needs a spark.

What do you think?

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