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Book Excerpt: The importance of specialisation in achieving peak performance

Urban life is stressful especially in India where a young population’s aspiration isn’t matched by the nation’s infrastructure. In this environment, how does one achieve peak performance in their professional lives and inner peace?

In their new book, The Victory Project, Saurabh Mukherjea and Anupam Gupta try to answer that question. Through intensive research and interviews with very successful professionals in varied fields, the authors have written a handy guide that talks about six practices and behaviours that will help one reach their potential. Specialisation is one of them. Here’s an excerpt from the book on why we should all specialise.

The first thinker to clearly articulate the merits of specialization was the Scottish economist Adam Smith. In 1776, he published a book that would lay the foundations of free market economics—The Wealth of Nations. The book explained the merits of the division of labour, i.e. the division of a large job into smaller jobs and then the assignment of these small jobs to specific workers such that each worker becomes a specialist in executing a narrowly defined task. So, in one of the most famous case studies ever narrated by an economist, the Scotsman explained how the task of making a pin (from a wire) could be broken down into the following sequential tasks: cut wire, sharpen one end, stamp the head and, finally, solder the head to produce the finished product. Each task would be given to one worker who by dint of doing the same thing all day long would become extremely proficient in that specialized task.

Smith’s idea provided the basis for how factories would be organized during the Industrial Revolution and for a long time thereafter. In the first decade of the twentieth century when Henry Ford built the assembly line for the first mass-produced car, the Model T, he drew upon Smith’s theory of the division of labour; each worker would work at one station all day long and do just one thing. This not only enhanced the worker’s efficiency but training the workers also became easier as they only had to be trained in a narrow, specific task. Almost a century later, cars are still made in much the same way in a silent salute to the Scottish economist who explained why specialization by workers radically improves efficiency for the manufacturer and productivity for the worker (who can thus command a better wage).

In the context of the post-industrial world, the man who has taken Smith’s thinking and turned it into practical principles is Malcolm Gladwell. In his provocative book Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell laid out a template for specialization or expertise development which we will revisit repeatedly in this book. This template hinges on relentless application, ideally from an early age, to develop a skill under the tutelage of a master or in the confines of a progressive organization.

More specifically, Gladwell challenged the conventional view of success that it is mostly about innate talent possessed by almost superhuman individuals. Using examples as diverse as Bill Gates, the Beatles, Canadian ice-hockey players and Jewish lawyers in New York, Gladwell illustrates that success arises from a mixture of immense application (usually thousands of hours of practice) and social circumstances (for example, being born to the ‘right’ parents, in the ‘right’ place and at the ‘right’ time).

Matthew Syed, a former British number-one table tennis player, turned Gladwell’s template into an inspirational self-help book. In Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, using examples ranging from chess players and violinists to firefighters, Syed debunks many of our cherished myths about talented super-achievers.

Syed explains that success has three distinct drivers:

Relentless practice: 10,000 hours of practice, as codified by Gladwell, to develop a specific skill is a necessary but not sufficient driver of success. To quote Syed, ‘. . . from art to science and from board games to tennis, it has been found that a minimum of ten years is required to reach world-class status in any complex task . . . In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out that most top performers practise around one thousand hours per year . . . so he redescribes the ten-year rule as the ten-thousand hour rule. This is the minimum necessary for the acquisition of expertise in any complex task.’

Coaching: ‘Purposeful practice’ under the guidance of coaches and/or high-quality institutions helps optimize the skill development derived from 10,000 hours of practice. In other words, the whole process of learning becomes more efficient if done under the tutelage of experts who can spot the budding star’s mistakes and provide remedies whilst harnessing her strengths.

An enabling environment makes all of the above possible. Without this environment—without the support of parents, coaches and without the right infrastructure—and the opportunities that it creates, we would not have the Virat Kohlis, the Sachin Tendulkars, the Warren Buffetts or the Steve Jobses. Given access to such an environment, more youngsters will blossom to become successful professionals.

In fact, in Saurabh’s first book, Gurus of Chaos: Modern India’s Money Masters, he showed that the template laid out above goes a long way towards explaining the success of several of India’s leading fund managers. Looking at the careers of Indian investment legends such as Sanjoy Bhattacharyya, Akash Prakash, K.N. Sivasubramanian and B.N. Manjunath, Saurabh found that success in managing large sums of money over long time periods comes from:

‘A decade or so of intense training in analysing companies, quizzing management teams, cultivating primary data sources and understanding the business cycle;

An almost obsessive focus on intellectual integrity (an avoidance of shortcuts in researching, understanding and diligencing a company) even after the initial period of apprenticeship is over to ensure that clients’ wealth is preserved and harnessed in an optimal fashion; and

The ability—created through training, self-awareness and humility—to successfully deal with greed and fear on a daily basis and thereby peel away from other investors who succumb to these primal emotions.’

For example, the chief investment officer (CIO) of one of India’s largest fund management houses, ICICI Prudential Asset Management Company, Sankaran Naren, started investing his father’s money in Indian stocks when he was fourteen years old. He continued investing through his years in IIT Madras and IIM Calcutta. This hobby was sustained through his early years in the world of work—as a stockbroker in Chennai through the 1990s. In 2000, Naren joined a prominent brokerage in Mumbai first as vice president (Operations) and then as head of research. In 2004, he became a fund manager at ICICI Prudential at the age of thirty-eight. Six years later, he became the CIO of ICICI Prudential.

From his entry into investing in his early teens, Naren’s journey to the peak of his profession had taken nearly thirty years. Those years were spent reading thousands of annual reports, understanding market cycles, understanding the investing styles of other investment legends, investing money, losing money, discussing those mistakes with other investors, learning from the mistakes, improving the investment process and gradually, through sustained effort, learning how to deliver healthy returns without taking high levels of risk. That is the level of time and effort it takes to achieve mastery in difficult, demanding jobs.

In fact, in the decade since the publication of Outliers, the benefits of 10,000 hours-style specialization in terms of superior expertise and the attendant mental development required for the demonstration of superior expertise have now been scientifically proven in numerous fields. Take, for example, the London taxi drivers we encountered in the previous chapter. The men and women who drive the famous black cabs are specifically trained to: (a) have a very detailed mental map of the city in their heads; and (b) be able to use this map to identify the shortest route between two locations. Their accelerated mental development has been studied in detail by psychologists.

In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson writes:

To master the Knowledge, prospective cabbies . . . spend years driving from place to place in London, making notes of what is where and how to get from here to there. The first step is to master a list of 320 runs in the guidebook provided to taxi-driver candidates. For a given run, a candidate will generally first figure out the shortest route by physically travelling the various possible routes, usually by motorbike, and then will explore the areas around the beginning and end of the run . . . After repeating this process 320 times, the prospective cabbie has accumulated a foundational set of 320 best routes around London . . . even after passing all the tests and getting licensed, London taxi drivers continue to increase and hone their knowledge of London’s streets . . .

Neural imaging has allowed psychologists to see how the brains of these taxi drivers change as they go through the long process of memorizing thousands of routes, then passing The Knowledge and then—even more interestingly—becoming experts in the decade after they have passed the test.