Tiger Woods raised the bar for professional golfers by committing himself to a lifetime of deliberate practice. Almost two hundred years earlier, Benjamin Franklin set out to be a “tolerable English writer” after his father pointed out deficiencies in a letter he had written to a friend:
About this time I met with an old volume of the Spectator. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With that view, I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by for a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. I then compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
He was less than 17 years old. I was reminded of this story when I read “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. He and other writers recently have argued that high levels of competence are not achievable on talent alone. Colvin uses Mozart and Tiger Woods as examples.
In this regard, the opposite of Tiger is not a beginner, but a “duffer”. A duffer is just not a mediocre player, He is a mediocre player who actually plays regularly for many years but will never become more proficient. Employees who hold the same job for a long time may have been able to rely on the employer to schedule training to satisfy the evolving requirements of that position. When they are suddenly unemployed, they lack the skills demanded by other employers.
Benjamin Franklin found the time for these pursuits by rising early, before he began his day’s work in the printing shop.
I invite you to read more of his inspiring autobiography here.