It takes effort to improve

During his heyday, Roger Federer spent 237 consecutive weeks as the world’s number one tennis player. To this day, nobody else has dominated the game so comprehensively. By his retirement in September 2022, he had won twenty grand slams and more than a hundred singles titles.

Despite his immense abilities, Federer always used coaches to improve his game. In 2016, he hired a new coach to improve his backhand. He had already won seventeen grand slams by this point, so his backhand wasn’t terrible. Yet, this is the mindset of a world champion. The constant striving for improvement.

Federer knew that repetition was not enough to trigger improvement. He must have hit millions of backhands on his path to those first seventeen grand slams. If repetition was sufficient for improvement, he would be as good as humanly possible. Instead, he recognised that deliberate practice was needed to sharpen his skills.

In business, the same rules apply. Constant repetition provides some small degree of improvement, but that soon tails off.

If you’ve been a manager for ten years, are you twice as good as you were five years ago? Probably not. You will have reached a level of competency, and then plateaued. We all like to think we’re above average, but the odds of that aren’t great.

James Clear talks about the power of small improvements in his book, Atomic Habits. He explains how improving a skill by one percent each day makes you thirty-seven times better by the end of the year. (1.01365 = 37.8 in case you’re wondering). This is the magic of compounding results.

Imagine if your last five years had been spent carefully developing expertise critical to your job. While your colleagues trundled along in average-ville, you dedicated a few hours each week to incremental improvement. Using James Clear’s logic, we know that even a one percent improvement per week would see you thirteen times better after five years.

The good news is that it’s not too late to adopt this mentality. For many of us, there are five more years of work ahead. We can choose how we use them.

What might this look like in practice?

Whatever your job, there will be core competencies that would benefit from fine-tuning. Before you forget all about this article, take a moment to think of the skills that your job demands and make a plan to work on those this week.

Your five years start now!

PS. If you want to dig more into learning versus performing, check out this great TED talk.