Talent Can Only Take You So Far: Lessons on Elite Performanceby@scottdclary
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Talent Can Only Take You So Far: Lessons on Elite Performance

by Scott D. ClaryJuly 3rd, 2023
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Less than 8,000 players have ever suited up for an NHL game, each considered among the sport's elites. Michael Jordan, arguably the most significant sports icon in history, would famously focus on his failures more than his successes. How can the rest of us learn from these high-level performers? What can we take back to our own pursuits?
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Every year, there are more than 500,000 registered ice hockey players in Canada. Almost none of them will ever sniff the NHL, professional hockey’s highest level. 

Less than 8,000 players have ever suited up for an NHL game, each considered among the sport's elites. Getting to that point in any career should be considered a success, but what about those with their sights set even higher?

Chris Pronger, a recent guest on the , is one of 294 players in the Hockey Hall of Fame and one of only eight defensemen to ever win the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player. 

After a long, successful playing career, he has transitioned into the business world and now operates Well Inspired Travels with his wife, Lauren. 

I wanted to pick his brain about true greatness and how he never stopped trying to improve.

The endless pursuit

I know this might shock you, but I’m not quite as athletic as Chris. 

So when I think about playing in the NHL, that seems like enough. Suiting up for your hometown team, listening to the crowd cheer as you hit the ice. It would be one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world. 

But there seems to be a common theme for the ones that reach the very peak of any industry. 

Good was never good enough. 

Michael Jordan, arguably the most significant sports icon in history, would famously focus on his failures more than his successes:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Chris referenced the same mindset, using every missed assignment or fumbled pass to fuel his training. As a reason to go to work every day. As the inspiration to improve. 

It’s that kind of never-ending growth that I’m interested in. How can the rest of us learn from these high-level performers? What can we take back to our own pursuits (ones that might not necessarily be televised)?

Turn up the difficulty

One of the most interesting parts of our conversation wasn’t even about business or the NHL. We discussed how he chose to play junior hockey in the CHL instead of following his brother’s footsteps to college (CHL contracts make a player ineligible for the NCAA). 

He immediately pointed out that it allowed him to play against Eric Lindros, the “next big thing” in hockey. Lindros played for the Oshawa Generals, just a short drive from Chris’s Peterborough Petes. 

Putting yourself up against the best, making it as hard as possible, gives you the ammunition needed to improve. It could have proven too difficult and ended his career before it started. 

But instead, it allowed him to hone his skills and improve at a greater pace. 

Recognizing opportunity

These opportunities exist for us as well. Whether it’s chasing a new title at a different company, volunteering to lead a major project, or starting your own business. 

You have to be able to recognize them, though, and be ready to jump through the door as soon as it opens. 

Leaning in

When an opportunity presents itself, making the most of it requires total commitment and a proactive approach. 

Here are five ways to fully "lean in" to any opportunity:

Do your research: Take the time to learn everything you can, including potential benefits and risks. 

Overcome fear and self-doubt: Recognize these emotions, acknowledge their source, and consciously choose not to let them overpower you. Embrace failure as a learning experience and remind yourself that not taking action is often the biggest risk of all.

Network and collaborate: Networking can open doors to new opportunities, while collaboration can enhance the value of those opportunities by pooling knowledge, resources, and ideas. Actively seek out opportunities to meet and engage with like-minded individuals and organizations.

Adopt a flexible and adaptable mindset: Embrace this challenge by being open to new ideas, willing to learn from others, and prepared to pivot if necessary.

Set clear goals and take action: Once you have decided to pursue an opportunity, set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals as a roadmap to success. Break these goals into smaller, actionable steps that can be tackled individually.

Commit to taking consistent action, track your progress, and celebrate your wins. This goal-setting and action-taking approach will keep you focused, motivated, and ready to lean into the opportunity.

Escaping mistakes

But not every path taken is the right one. Sometimes, you make a mistake and pursue something that was never meant to be. 

You know what, though? That's totally okay. 

Mistakes are just a part of being human and can be pretty valuable. Instead of beating yourself up, try looking at it as a learning opportunity. 

After all, we wouldn't grow or improve without making a few wrong turns here and there. Grab that lesson, tuck it under your arm, and use it to make better choices.

Talent’s not enough

No matter how often I hear it, I’m still shocked when an all-time great athlete talks about what got them to the highest level. They never talk about how they are lucky enough to have more talent than the rest of the competition. 

It’s always about their work, the coaching they received, and a mentor that taught them the “right way to do it.”

It reminds me of a Calvin Coolidge quote:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.”

Innate ability helps, sure. But it won’t get you all the way.

Surround yourself with greatness

Just like when Chris went up against the best competition, he also got close to the people already at the level he was chasing. 

When the St. Louis Blues traded for him, he immediately latched onto Al MacInnis, another one of the greatest NHL defensemen of all time, who was in the latter part of his career. Chris credits him for putting him on the track to true elite status.

The mentor relationship

Mentorship is valuable at all levels. Most of us understand that already, but so few of us seek out experienced help. A few years ago, Olivet Nazarene University published a study showing 76% of respondents believed a mentor was important, but only 37% admitted having one

That disconnect likely comes from our fear of vulnerability. 

We naturally avoid situations that give us a sense of fear, anxiety, or danger. Opening up to a mentor can be all those things, even when the relationship works properly. 

But it is also one of the only ways to unlock your full potential because an experienced leader can see things you will never recognize in yourself. 

Stay humble

Too often, the ego can get in the way; of mentorship, of personal growth, of maximizing potential. 

Chris used a phrase obviously taken from some personal experience. 

“A lot of people think they’re working hard until they’re next to someone who is.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of self-aggrandizing. Patting yourself on the back, even if it was not your best effort. When you’re put face-to-face with someone whose work ethic dwarfs your own, it can be a shock. 

But it can also be inspiring if you are humble enough to recognize it. The Success Story podcast is that tool for me. Sitting down and talking with an expert rejuvenates my work ethic and makes me double down. 

That only works, though, if you’re willing to admit that there is room for growth. Stay humble, and let others show you the limit.

Adapt tradition

That doesn’t mean you have to follow everyone’s advice. The elite of the elite don’t get there through tried-and-true means. They adapt, innovate, and find new ways to get even more out of traditional methods. 

Take time-tested practices and infuse them with fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and modern technology. The result often improves efficiency, effectiveness, and success. 

By building upon the strong foundations of these established techniques and remaining open to change, we can create a powerful synergy between old and new strategies. This fusion enables us to tackle contemporary challenges, capitalize on evolving opportunities, and remain competitive in a constantly changing landscape.

Final thoughts

Not everyone is going to reach the top 0.1% of their field. But you can still learn a lot from those who do. 

They never luck into that success. It’s a mixture of hard work, circumstance, and preparation. Talent’s not enough. 

If you want to hear more from Chris, including his thoughts on investment strategies and financial planning for athletes, check out the full interview on the Success Story YouTube channel. 

Otherwise, I’ll be back next week with some more insights. Remember, keep your head up and your stick on the ice!

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.

Also published here.