Here’s what you need to rise to the top of your field

Nothing in life is free. So how does Magnus Carlsen stay so superior at his chess game? How can Zlatan perform magic with an orange and Ada Hegerberg become the world’s best footballer? How did Björk become such a creative and skilled musician? How did H. C. Andersen and Charles Darwin rise to the top in their respective fields?

“It seems that certain factors need to be present to become an expert within a given field,” says Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

These decisive factors are:

  1. Focused training
  2. Passion
  3. Grit
  4. Positive mindset
  5. Mentors
  6. The journal

New Ideas in Psychology has just published an article that presents a theoretical model and a new scale that assesses passion in relation to a skill.

“A key concept in this context is to find an area that you’re interested in. That’s how we can light the spark,” says Sigmundsson.

The commonly accepted refrain is that 10 000 hours of practice are necessary to become really good at something. Although the number of hours offers little more than a hint, there is no doubt that a lot of practice and focus are essential to get really good. In other words, you have to practice exactly what you want to excel in.

So who is inclined to devote this much time to an activity? What makes a person willing to put so much effort into being the best at bending free kicks like a banana, or giving that extra little push on the run up to the 50K race, or solving complicated equations or writing a novel?

“You need something more. You need a passion for what you’re doing. You have to burn for it,” says Sigmundsson.

But grit, the perseverance and motivation to keep at an activity over time, is also key.

“In addition, you need a positive mindset, an attitude of ‘I can achieve this,'” Sigmundsson says.

And it’s unlikely that you can manage the journey alone. You most likely need a mentor – someone who can show you the way and who supports you. This should be someone with the right knowledge base to stand by you for the long time required to become proficient.

Passion for an area or a topic or skill is thus a key factor in achieving one’s goals.

“Passion sets the direction of your arrow, but grit determines the strength and size of the arrow,” says Sigmundsson.

Men generally find the strongest connection between passion and grit. They spend a lot of energy on what they’re passionate about. For women, the strongest connection seems to be between grit and a positive mindset.

The study included 126 participants and forms the basis for the article. This article is also linked to other articles and a book that has recently been written on the criteria for success. The research at NTNU on learning and skills development has been going on for almost 30 years.

Several researchers have been working on the Norwegian book Ekspertise. Utvikling av kunnskap og ferdigheter [Expertise. Development of knowledge and skills] during the past four to five years. In their research they studied what factors enabled selected individuals to excel in their fields. These characters include H. C. Andersen, Charles Darwin and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, among others.

In the book, Magnus Carlsen’s father, Henrik Albert Carlsen, describes his son’s path to becoming the world’s best chess player. Vidar Halldorsson writes about the Icelanders and their success in sports such as handball.

Anders Ericsson writes about those prerequisite 10 000 hours of training and that experts are always “made, not born.” Source: The Passion Scale: Aspects of reliability and validity of a new 8-item scale assessing passion. H. Sigmundsson, M. Haga, F. Hermundsdottir.

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