I found this 2006 article, What it takes to be great, in Fortune.com’s archives.
It covers much of the same ground as Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code.
In short, the key to greatness is… wait for it… practice—diligent, consistent, focused, challenging practice.
From the article:
The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.
Most of us just go through the motions and simply repeat what we are good at already. It’s easy and feels good. But that kind of practice does nothing to propel you forward.
Masters, however, repeatedly push themselves to failure and focus on steady, incremental improvements.
Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.
Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, “Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.”
Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It’s the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.
What’s encouraging about all this is that greatness isn’t the domain of those born with extraordinary gifts. They may have an advantage, but ultimately it comes down to factors you can control—the quality and quantity of your effort, your willingness to build effective habits and put in the kind of practice that leads to steady but sure improvement.
Determine what you want to be great at, come up with a plan to get there, and then do the work.