It was over 30 years ago when two Hungarian educators decided to begin homeschooling their three daughters. They were determined to challenge the then-popular assumption that women don’t succeed in areas requiring spatial thinking, such as chess. In addition to their regular curriculum, they started playing chess with the girls regularly. Their training and daily practice paid off: all three daughters have been ranked in the top ten female players in the world with the youngest daughter becoming a grand master at age 15, breaking the previous record for the youngest person to earn that title. Today she is one of the world’s top players and has defeated almost all the best male players.
I first read this story in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article titled, The Making of an Expert. The point of the article and the hundreds of articles I’ve read on the subject since is that mastery of a skill is not determined by innate talent but rather how hard we’re willing to work. Researchers now agree that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary to achieve expertise in any complex subject.
I find this incredibly empowering because it means I can do anything if I’m willing to work hard enough. Even better, most of the skills and habits I’m interested in cultivating will take a lot less than 10,000 hours of hard work. Instead what is required is the belief that I can do it, and then practice. In the same way practice is required to master a sport, it is required for changing habits or improving nonathletic abilities. Better still, good habits are completely self-reinforcing. The more you practice, the stronger the neural pathways become and, as a consequence, the easier the behavior becomes for you to use on a regular basis.
We teach this process of learning and developing mastery and excellence in leadership behaviors with every client. Once learned, the model is used hundreds of times per day for building habit strength and unconscious competence through repetition.
THE EXPERIMENT: Identify a behavior you want to start using on a more regular basis.
1. Create a projection for yourself of the number of times you will intentionally use the behavior during the day. Hash marks indicating each application are adequate. Shoot for 5 to 10 applications of the behavior per day.
2. Ask a friend to observe you and provide feedback about your use of the behavior.
3. Do this for one week diligently. Repetition will build habit strength and soon enough you won’t need to be so intentional. The use of the hash marks will soon become unnecessary.
THE CONVERSATION: Share the results of your experiment in the comments below or contact the author directly at
Donna Rae Smith is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc, a behavioral strategy company that teaches leaders to be masters of change. For more than two decades, Donna Rae Smith and the Bright Side team have been recognized as innovators in organizational and leadership development and the key partner to over 250 of the world’s most influential companies.
Donna Rae is a guest leadership blogger for Smart Business and the author of two leadership books, Building Your Bright Side and The Power of Building your Bright Side. For more information, please visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae at
Leaders. Change. Results.™
® Copyright 2010 Bright Side, Inc. All Rights Reserved.