Friday, September 24, 2010

To Excel is a Habit: Lessons of Ichiro

Consistent and high level human achievement builds upon habits. It's startlingly simple. To engage and succeed in complicated and demanding activities requires practice, reflection, learning and more practice. The keys lie in the interaction of practice and reflection. If you practice a failed action over and over, you just fail over and over. When Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki hit his 200th. hit for his tenth straight season, he not only achieved what no other baseball player had ever achieved, but demonstrated that excellence builds upon the very mundane but critical concept of habits.

It is hard to fathom the magnitude of the achievement. Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest activities in all of sports. Ten to twenty players a year may bat above 300; a trace element garner 200 hits over 600 plus at bats. Now magnify 200 hits for ten years running--1600 plus games!

Such batting reflects a stunning degree of consistency and concentration. To succeed is one thing; but to succeed over time only occurs if a person masters the art of a profession and then constantly adapts. In baseball as in life, once you succeed, your competitors adapt. A litigator will face new strategies or a politician different candidates or a business new products and competitors. Ichiro defied this competitive dynamic. Here are his stats over the last decade!!

2010 *200.315

The lesson of Ichiro's success carries over to all aspects of life. A master of a craft practices but practices mindfully. Individuals perform the action, maybe interviewing a candidate, teaching a class, writing a report (it really does not matter). Then they evaluate the success of failure of the action. Then they revise and train themselves to adapt the next time.

Success like this builds on a set of habits that embody an emotional and cognitive ability to scan the situation, judge what is required, and then act upon it. Over time and experience, great professionals and masters spontaneously act this way because their practice has engraved habits of perception, recall and judgement in their minds and bodies. Habit not only grounds character but grounds achievement.

So hitting 300 or getting 200 hits one year is an amazing accomplishment. But to continue means that the player must adapt each year to new pitchers and to coaches and pitchers who have pored over statistics and tape to analyze every tendency and pitch around or against them. It means a good athlete, lawyer, doctor, teacher, business person must learn and adapt or their tendencies will lead them to be fail.

The major leagues have probably turned over 90 percent of their pitchers in this decade, but it has not mattered. As in the above examples, each situation is the same but different. The ability to enact consistently while adapting is the key to mastery and greatness in any field of judgment and action.

Perfecting a craft can be a very lonely art. It requires the cooperation of working with others, but it also exacts immense time alone and  ruthless focus upon the minute analyzing, adjusting and practicing the art. Perfecting a craft demands monomaniacal focus. Many superb athletes or professionals look aloof or feel distant because of this devotion. What emotional energy they have left over they devote to family where it counts. They will be consumate professionals with their team; but their team ultimately treats them as a  commodity; their loyalty lies with their craft and deeper bonds.

The other side of a person who excels is their ability to stay focused and ignore the noise. Ichiro achieves this by studious rituals from his catlike stretches to the precision of where and how he hits in the cage. He seldom wastes physical or emotional energy because it is all channeled into achievement of his exquisite hitting and superlative fielding.

You find the same pattern over and over again with great professionals in all fields. They often don't feel like team guys, but they are essential team contributors, and their ability to insulate themselves from the quack of the crowd and whims of fans and media anchors their consistency. In Ichiro's case it becomes more evident because he has played on such awful and woebegone Mariner teams; but despite the losing and carping, he performs. Sustained excellence depends upon the balance and focus to transcend the noise of crowd and passion praise and even glory. It is compatible with glory and for Ichiro to acknowlege his own "happiness." But even then he resolutely refuses to compare himself to others, but remains solitary in his pursuit of a Platonic ideal only he can see.

Mindful repetition; thoughtful adjustment. Persistent and consistent practice and adaptation. It sounds simple; it is very hard.

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