Elite Performance - What It Really Takes

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Recently I took my daughters into Seattle to watch the U.S. Women's Olympic Gymnastics team perform. They were in town as part of a 150-city post-Olympic tour across the U.S.

It is the first time I've seen gymnastics at the world elite level in person. Even though the routines were nowhere near as difficult as what I saw on TV during the Olympics, it is quite breathtaking to see the sheer speed and height of certain events in person.

A few random observations:

* Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas is tiny -- she is much smaller and shorter than her teammates.

* It is ridiculous how fast Ali Raisman and Jordyn Wieber are on the floor exercises. On TV, you really don't grasp the incredible speed with which these woman flip and twist within a single jump. In person, it defies comprehension.

* Seeing the gymnasts in person on the uneven bars, you really grasp how incredibly dangerous the whole thing is. On TV, I would hold my breath hoping they could stick the landing. In person, I would hold my breath hoping their hands would not slip, launching themselves with great velocity into the spectator seating area. I was really hoping nobody would kill themselves.

But the most interesting portion of the evening was an optional Question and Answers session they had with a number of the athletes before the show. A number of questions came up, the answers of which I thought were very interesting.

One question asked of Gold Medalist Jordyn Wieber was, "When did you first start doing gymnastics, and how much do you train?"

Answers: 4 years old and about 5 hours a day for about 6 days a week (from a very early age). FYI - she is currently 17 years old. The other athletes had very similar answers.

So like any consultant, guess what I did?

Yes......

(wait for it...)

I did the math…. I can't help it! (And yes, as you might imagine, with this kind of habitual thinking, I make for a lousy dinner date... but I digress.)

If you aspire to perform at the MBB level, it should have occurred to you to do the math too. Here's why.

If I told a room full of my old McKinsey colleagues that Jordyn Wieber, who is now 17 years old, starting doing gymnastics at 4 years of age and trains around 5 hours a day, I kid you not... easily 1/3 of the room would have the answer to the question of "How much time did Jordyn Wieber train to win an Olympic gold medal?" within 15 seconds.

Within the top firms, this kind of quantification thinking is the norm.  If you want to train yourself to think at that level, you might as well start now.

So here goes the math...

17 years old - 4 year starting age = 13 years of training.

She was already a national elite athlete at 9 years old.

So let's assume she trained less as a 4 - 8 year old child, and only reached the 5 hours a day level when she reached the elite level at age 9. When you average it all out, let's assume the weight average training time per training day was about 4 hours.

Assume 2 weeks of vacation a year, that's 50 training weeks a year x 6 days = 300 training days.

300 training days x 4 hours = 1,200 hours of training per year

1,200 hours x 13 years = Approx 15,000 hours

So there you have it... to compete at an elite level, at least for Jordyn Wieber, it took 15,000 hours of training before the age of 17 to pull it off.

So what does a MBB-caliber consultant do next?

Yes....

(wait for it....)

You'll want to do a… Reasonableness Test

(By the way, if it did not occur to you to do a reasonableness test on my estimate, it should.... because once again, if I did such an estimate in a room full of my former McKinsey colleagues, someone... (almost always a Business Analyst, by the way) will do a reasonableness test on the estimate. It is just the way consultants naturally think.)

Now hopefully I did not make any math computation errors above (because if I did, I will get 100 emails in the next hour pointing out my mistake!) Separate from computation errors which can be checked by re-doing the computations, the more likely error is one from a flawed assumption.

To test the reasonableness of one's estimate, you want to triangulate the estimate with other known data points to see if the estimate seems in the correct range of values. So, does 15,000 hours of training sound reasonable?

Well, in out of my favorite books, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the author states that becoming exceptionally good at something takes about 10,000 hours of experience.

http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017930/

In my own experience for intellectual skills, I found that number to be 10,000 hours to be good at something and 20,000 hours to be really exceptional.

So my estimate of Jordyn Wieber's cumulative training time seems like it is in the correct order of magnitude.

If my estimate of her training were 1,000 hours, that seem off by a factor of 10X -- and I would want to re-check my math. If I had estimated 100,000 hours, that too would be a red flag that would prompt me to check my math (and my assumptions).

Another check is to consider total training time vs. total waking time from age 4 - 17.

If you had access to Google, you could try to find the average training time of elite athletes in other sports.

There are numerous ways to check reasonableness... the key is to actually do a reasonableness test by finding some other metric that should be correlated to the number you're estimating.

(By the way, if you're a CIB, that last sentence is worth re-reading a few times. If you're a F1Y, it's worth remembering to actually do what I describe in your day-to-day analysis. Finally, if you do this in a staff meeting in industry, you will blow your boss away... this kind of thinking rarely happens in industry.)

Getting back to the gymnastics event, watching my 9-year-old mentally take notes regarding what it took for Jordyn Wieber to train to Olympic caliber, it suddenly dawned on me why I take my kids to things like these.

In addition to having a good time, I want them to see, hear, and experience what excellence looks like.

It's the same reason I took them to see a Broadway show when we were in New York City over the summer. I wanted them to see what the best stage performers in the world look and sound like.

I'm pretty open as to whatever my kids want to do in life in terms of a career. That being said, I feel pretty strongly that whatever they do decide to do, they should strive to be excellent at it. If you're going to bother doing it, you might as well do it well (for anything other than a hobby).

I figure if my kids grow up seeing excellence all around them, they will at some level just assume it is normal to strive for excellence. As with any parenting decision, this is merely a hypothesis that will be proven right or wrong in about 20+ years. But, it's one I'm comfortable betting on.

But here's the problem with experiencing excellence.

It is almost never convenient.

I originally decided not to get tickets for the Gymnastics show. My concerns were:

* It takes us about an hour to get into downtown Seattle.

* My 5-year-old would miss her nap -- which means she would be prone to falling asleep during the actual show and whine like you would not believe.

* It was a school night and we wouldn't get home until late.

But in the end, I thought that this kind of opportunity to see Olympic gold medalists in person in a sport my girls like does not come along very often. I could wait for Rio in 2016, but the girls would be of course much older then.

There's also no guarantee the U.S. women's team would win Gold, that there would be a U.S.-wide tour after the fact, that I would be available to go, and that my girls would still be interested in an evening with dad.

So I just decided that despite all the hassles, to just do in anyways.

As somewhat expected, 10 minutes into the start of the show, my 5-year-old tells me she's tired, wants to sleep and go home (but also wants to watch too... she's tired and torn).  To make it all work, I was stuffing M&M chocolates into her mouth to get her a sugar and caffeine high. Normally, she almost never gets any candy and definitely never any caffeine. Yeah, I wasn't winning a parenting nutrition award last night and I figured I'd deal with my soon to be unhappy wife later (sorry honey!).

But... desperate times, desperate measures.

After the show, we had to catch an hourly shuttle on our way home. To make it (and avoid the girls going to sleep even later), we literally ran for 6 minutes to make it out of the arena. I was carrying my 5-year-old on one arm while running.

We made it by 45 seconds... like I said, rarely convenient.

My point in sharing all of this is to make the point that immersing yourself in being around excellence is quite often terribly inconvenient.It's precisely this inconvenience that causes most people to not strive for excellence... because... well... it's inconvenient.

Conversely, it is the willingness to tolerate inconvenience + effort that makes excellence accessible to those who want it the most. In your life and career, you will be presented with opportunities for excellence. It is sometimes a challenge in figuring out if you should pursue them or not.

One decision-making framework that I personally use is to ask myself the following two questions:

1) Does this opportunity benefit me now and in the future?

2) Is the cost or inconvenience of pursing the opportunity a one-time or an on-going irritation?

For this event, it was my hope my girls would enjoy and remember the evening, and use as role models the women they saw perform. So on the first factor, I'd say yes -- short- and long-term expected benefits.

In terms of inconvenience, a year from now, I doubt I'll even remember the many hassles involved. So the "cost" was merely a one-time, but easily forgotten, irritation.

So for me, the conclusion was to just tolerate the inconvenience in the pursuit of giving my girls one more data point on excellence.

On a related note, I have been very much gratified by the many success stories I receive from CIBs who become F1Ys.

It was my intention back when I started CaseInterview.com to level the playing field in entering the consulting field and I'm excited by the results so far.

However, one comment I have received quite often from CIBs over the past year or two is that they find my help on the case interview to be immensely useful, but they are struggling to get the interview in the first place.

For many candidates, the constraint is not performing on the case, it's securing the interview. I have devoted more time to writing and teaching about this topic. And I wanted to let you know about a new video I recently put together titled  The Top 5 Consulting Resume Mistakes.

Just like there are many misconceptions (that I've hopefully since clarified) about how to perform well on the case interview, there are also a number of misconceptions about what an excellent consulting resume looks like.

This video helps clarify the top 5 misconceptions and mistakes aspiring consultants make on their resumes and is worth watching.

To watch, click below:
http://www.caseinterview.com/consulting-resume

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