“[David] cared for them with a true heart and led them with skillful hands.” Psalm 78:72 (NLT).
Research by psychologist K. Anders Erikson has shown that it requires approximately 10,000 hours of intentional practice, with coaching, to achieve a high degree of excellence in any endeavor. Ten thousand hours is roughly equivalent to ten years of putting in 20 hours of practice a week. The importance of perseverance and practice is obvious.
Every bit as essential to achieve excellence, yet less obvious, is the importance of the character strengths of humility and love. Humility encourages us to seek and truly accept coaching and mentoring, and love is what allows us to give and receive the relational support of others needed to persevere through the inevitable ups and downs of life.
Years ago I (Michael) met and spoke with Andre Agassi when he was playing a tennis tournament in Burbank, California. This was during a period when Agassi had fallen from being one of the top players in the world to being so lowly ranked that it was difficult for him to get into major tournaments. Andre had the skills but just wasn’t playing anywhere near the top of his game. The Burbank tournament was the turning point. Agassi won the tournament and went on to return to the ranks of the top tennis players in the world. What happened?
Agassi attributed his turnaround to the guidance, support, encouragement and love he received from his wife (tennis great Steffi Graf), his coach, and other family members and friends. Before that time, Agassi had isolated himself. He was trying to self-help his way back to excellence. It is likely that he had grown lonely. When Andre humbled himself to accept coaching and connect relationally with a group of individuals whom he loved and who loved him, that’s when he began improving his performance.
I remember seeing Agassi walk around at the tournament and talk to people. There were several policemen there and I recall observing him chatting with each of them. When fans wanted an autograph, he patiently waited and signed each program or tennis ball. Andre was humble and more grounded than I had expected.
One key to Agassi’s comeback is that he had developed greater heart. The French word for heart is coeur, which is the root of the word courage. By admitting he could not come back on his own and reaching out for the help of others, Andre showed courage. Encourage means to share one’s heart with another. Along with the advice of his coach, Andre’s loving family and friends shared their hearts and encouraged him.
A formulaic phrase we use when speaking and teaching at organizations we want to help thrive is this:
task excellence + relationship excellence = sustainable superior performance.
Time and again we’ve witnessed that it can’t only be about the tasks of an organization; people, and specifically connection among the people, is equally critical. We see it here too. Years of time on the tennis court plus the connection Agassi developed with his relational support system was one key to his rising to once again be among the top-ranked tennis players in the world.
This message -- the need for love and encouragement, and for humility to accept advice from a coach or mentor -- is especially relevant now when research has shown that many individuals feel left out and have isolated themselves relationally. Research shows that people are more narcissistic and more people live alone today than at any time in U.S. history. A quarter of Americans report they have not had a conversation with a close friend over the last six months. They are struggling, like Andre did, and they desperately need our help to develop the courage, the heart, to take the risk of reaching out to connect with family and friends. We need to encourage them, to share our hearts with them, so that they can find the heart to reconnect. If a friend or family member has come to mind, we hope you will pray for them and reach out to encourage him or her by sharing your heart.
In summary, if you want to achieve excellence in any endeavor, it will require years of persistent practice, humility to learn from a coach who will help you see what you can’t such as your blind spots and advice on how to improve, and the courage to love family and friends. Your love will nourish them with emotional support and encouragement just as their love and encouragement will nourish you. Encouraged and loved, you’ll find you can persevere through the peaks and valleys you’ll encounter along the way.
It’s surprising, isn’t it, that developing one’s heart is an essential but rarely mentioned element to achieve excellence. It’s no wonder then that Jesus had so much to say about the heart. Like Andre Agassi, you may achieve excellence for a season, but it is utterly unsustainable unless you develop, as Psalm 78:72 points out, a “true heart.”
Pankau and Stallard are co-authors of the bestselling book Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity (Thomas Nelson).