Customer interaction is an area where you can practice your skills and improve your technique. But that is true only if you get honest feedback. (Photo Courtesy of Artistic Finishes)

The poet William Wordsworth may have said it best: “Not choice, but habit rules the unreflecting herd.” And bad habits are the worst of masters. So I ask you: When did you last reflect on your habits? Can you identify the habits that are helping you as well as habits that hinder your growth? I challenge you write a list today on everything you do by force of habit. (Habits never rise to consciousness unless we call them up.) Then, examine the result of each one. This examination matters, because as Confucius concluded, “The nature of man is always the same; it is their habits that separate them.” 

When you identify a bad habit, toss it and immediately replace it with a good one. Good habits produce good results, but great habits produce even greater results. In my 15 years of training people for better selling and managing, I’ve observed that most of us sell, manage, and even converse with others without really thinking.  Salespeople wonder why they’re not selling more! Managers wonder why profits are soft. I would suggest their bad habits may be producing some of the bad outcomes. 

Can you recognize which of your habits yield great results at work and home? My conclusions are influenced by the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. He has studied greatness in many people-from those in the “unreflecting herd” to those who achieved greatness in their professions (business, music, athletics or whatever).  He found the source of greatness was not merely hard work, but focused, deliberate practice.

In most domains of expertise, Ericsson found that many accomplished people had a childhood that included a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to maximize their improvement. He found that the individual differences, even among elite performers, corresponded positively to the length and intensity of their deliberate practice. (In other words: The harder they worked the better they got.) His research debunks the theories of overnight success or talent-makes-the-man.  He found that many characteristics assumed to be natural talent are actually the fruits or intense practice, usually for a minimum of 10 years. Basically, he asserts that the absence of natural talent does not stymie success. In the words of Rupert Hughes, “A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop.”

From Ericsson’s research and my experience, I believe that you can achieve almost anything through deliberate practice.  Will it be demanding?  Yes. Painful and hard? Yes. Greatness is not easily attained. That’s why it is so rare. Rarely, do you find a truly great salesperson, a great store manager, or a great installer. 

Please note that years of experience, alone, do not guarantee greatness. Ten years of experience may be only one year of experience repeated 10 times. I know.  I’ve worked in the flooring business for over 50 years, but much of that time I’ve simply repeated the same behavior … out of habit!  But remember: A select few people do work to improve for years and even decades; these are people who achieve greatness.

When you start out in this industry it is easy to feel snowed under by the pile of information you need to learn. At first, you learn quickly. But as you become comfortable, learning often slows. Maybe you believe you know enough, and you stop learning and developing. By contrast, the great ones among us commit to learn everything. They have the self-discipline to improve endlessly through deliberate practice. It reminds me of what Monte Thorton, President of the Mohawk Carpet Group, said to me about peak-performing territory managers, “The best are students of the game.”   

Samuel Johnson would concur: “Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.” Warren Buffet, for example, through years of study continues to get better at analyzing and reading financial statements.  Sometimes, we wish we had his great gift. Is it just a gift, or the result of his deliberate practice?

Tiger Woods has never stopped trying to improve. When Tiger practices, he hits a bucket of balls with an 8 iron with a goal of placing the ball within 20 feet of the pin at least 80 % of the time. That’s deliberate practice.

Pablo Casals, arguably the greatest cellist in the world, still practiced eight hours each day even at age 88. When asked why he did that, he paused, and said, “I think I’m getting better.” 

So, what does it take to become a student of the game? The answer includes curiosity, diligence and perseverance-deliberate practice.  “Everything yields to diligence.”  (Antiphanes) Consistency is crucial.  Consistency makes great actions habitual. 

So, how do you get started? I suggest that you select one critical task at work. It may be creating rapport with customers, handling upset customers, asking questions, reading a financial statement, coaching your employees, or interviewing job applicants. Determine that you will do whatever it takes to improve. (Desire is the force that sustains work.) As you perform this task, focus on what’s actually happening. Why are you doing it this way? After the task, ask a coach, mentor, or customer for feedback.  Reflect on what you did, how you felt and the comments you heard. With feedback, we can learn in large leaps. Without helpful feedback, improvements may be slow and small. 

Then, plan how to improve. Try the new method for a while.  Then, re-assess and seek more feedback. Revise as needed.

Commit to improving continually and endlessly. Don’t settle for irregular practice. Keep your goals in mind; they enable you to persevere: “No road is too long to the man who advances deliberately …and no honors are too distant for the man who prepares himself for them with patience.”  (Jean de la Bruyère)

Because greatness demands deliberate practice, we should expect few people will achieve it. But we can feel encouraged that greatness is not the province of only a preordained few. It is available to you and me-anyone willing to pay the price. But the fact is at least half the workers in this country are unengaged in their job.  They may not be actively sabotaging their performance, but they are prone to float more than dive in; they do the minimum. People fall out of love with their jobs because they are not growing. Their knowledge and skills languish. They find little or no personal satisfaction in their work. 

By contrast, by raising the bar of your skill level, when you leap over that bar you are excited to get to work each day. 

“On the whole, it is patience which makes the final difference between those who succeed or fail in all things.All the greatest people have it in an infinite degree, and among the less, the patient weak ones always conquer the impatient strong.” (John Ruskin)

Are you just going through the motions, functioning unconsciously by habit, in your profession? Or are you working to build better habits, so you become the best you can be?