My background is more farm and factory than university so academic excellence hasn’t come naturally to me. But over time by watching people who excelled in their field and reading books such as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom and Talent is Overrated I have learned the key to doing well at most things.

The first key to achievement is getting rid of the talent excuse. Modern researchers have sought in vain to find people who are actually talented. For example, Tiger Woods isn’t great because he’s talented; he’s great because he has practiced more than anyone in the world. What we call “talent” is actually good coaching and long hours of intentional practice. Now there are occupations that require certain physical traits such as basketball, sprinting, and bobybuilding or, in the cognitive realm, astrophysics and number theory. However, these exceptions aside, most people can do anything they want if they will put in enough effort in an intelligent manner. [If you do want to get smarter, play this game 15 minutes a day and eat butter.]

To succeed in seminary (or your school or job) you simply have to work hard. That sounds daunting, but it isn’t and it doesn’t require long hours. It requires focused hours. When thinking about work, think in terms of getting stuff done rather than hours spent. At the library I often see people who spend half their time talking or checking email. That’s fine if that’s what they want to do, but that isn’t working. The same held true at my engineering job. People would tell me they couldn’t get their assignments done on time, but they only spent 4 hours a day working. I found that it was fairly easy to get ahead at work, or have a good GPA, if I spent more of my day actually working.

If you read research on exceptional performance you will come across the number 10,000 over and over. The belief these days is that it takes 10,000 hours of intentional practice to master most any subject. Interestingly, that even applied to the Beatles – there were like everyone else until they started playing ten hours a day. I’m saying this because many people in academic settings don’t put in the hours, focused or otherwise. At most jobs you have to work a certain number of hours a week, but at school you are only accountable to yourself. I’ve found it helpful to treat school like a job. I try to start at 8 am, go home for lunch at noon, and then come home at 5 pm, as I would have when I worked as an engineer.

If you are going to measure something, measure how long you spend focused on your task. In fact, adding just one hour per day of focused work to your schedule amounts to over 1300 hours in just five years. That’s a pretty painless way to get really good at something.

Put in lots of focused hours and smile to yourself when people tell you how gifted you are.