Fifteen Minutes to Excellence

April 18, 2023

by Stephen T. Messenger

“Anyone can be a genius, if they pick just one specific subject and study it diligently just 15 minutes each day.” – Albert Einstein

My son picked up a new soccer skill called two-touch. This is where one player kicks the ball in the air twice with his foot and sends it to another player. That person kicks the ball out of the air to themselves, kicks it a second time, and sends it back to the first. Ridiculously hard!  

Unfortunately, I’m his practice partner and do not have the requisite skills by any means. I basically look like a fool in the backyard, sadly swatting at a ball.

Yet, new activities are not unfamiliar. I’ve had nine completely different jobs in the last nine years. And every single one of them I started with zero knowledge or experience of the task at hand. By the end, I was pretty good at them.

The New Guy

Every new task is daunting. No one likes to be discouraged or look incompetent in their first moments on the job. But we all are.

Jeff Probst, host of the show Survivor, frequently says during the challenges, “There’s a learning curve to this.” There certainly is for everything! Whether I started working at an Army garrison, learning a new skill like chess, or kicking a soccer ball, I had no idea how to do any of it at first.

Today, you will learn something new, meet someone new, or try something new. If you’re not, you’re failing to grow. And when you encounter this “new,” it will be uncomfortable.

Frequently, we are overwhelmed by the “newness” of things and think the learning curve is too steep; but it isn’t.

1. Consistency Matters

The Albert Einstein quote at the top resonates with me. I’ve heard the concept of consistent practice leading to expertise stated several ways: 18 minutes a day and you’ll be better than 95% of the world or Malcom Gladwell opining it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert.

When my daughter first started playing volleyball five years ago, the two of us couldn’t hit a ball back and forth more than twice for a week. Or my initial days in a rigorous Army academic program left me completely lost and frustrated for the first few months. My son started a language app to learn Latin of which he didn’t know a word.

Over time, we all slowly came around. It was consistency that mattered.  

Around the year plus mark of practicing volleyball almost every day, we had to stop the back and forth ourselves because it wouldn’t end. At the four-month mark of reading and writing every day at the schoolhouse, things started to click for me. And my son, now on a 158-day streak of Duolingo, runs circles around us in that language.   

2. Embrace the Newness

The newness of a task creates exponential growth. Practicing consistently will create new opportunities in your life. Two years ago when this website started, our team didn’t know anything about publishing, web design, advertisement, and a host of other skills needed to get it off the ground.

Now, we do this routinely, and my son has spun off his own YouTube channel, learning a flurry of other skills that extends from article content to layering video. He did this all by consistently experimenting and boldly putting his ideas out there for others to see and judge.

It’s okay to ask questions, learn, and fail.

3. Teaching Is the Key

George Bernard Shaw placed a line in his 1905 stage play, Man and Superman: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” While humorous at the surface, teaching is the second key to excellence. Once you start to improve upon a skill, sharing it with others helps you learn yourself.

I truly believe I’ve learned more about leadership by writing these articles than through any other method. Every week I am looking for ideas, socializing them with people, pitching them in public, and writing down my thoughts for others to read.

There is no better way to learn than to teach. Leaders must carve deliberate time out of their day to teach and be taught.

Looking into the Future

I wish this story ended with me being a master of soccer two-touch. We’ve done it about 10 times and once hit eight touches between us. While not Pele-esque, we’ve already seen great improvement that I didn’t think was possible. But I can see a future, way ahead of us, where we lose count just like in volleyball.

I also see a future where, as Einstein says, I could be an expert in any skill if I focused on it. The key is knowing what you want your area of expertise to be and carve out deliberate time to do it.

Practice. Embrace. Teach. Don’t give up!

Consistency is key!

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