lesson 1: fundamentals, practiced to mastery

Want to know the secret to exceptional, world-class performance?  Above everything else, master the fundamentals of your work.  It’s a simple concept.  So, why is it so hard?

A lesson from elite performers.

In our study of elite athletes and soldiers, we had a number of discoveries, but chief among them was the simple lesson that exceptional performance rests on a bedrock of fundamentals.  Professional football players and fighter pilots alike said things like, “I learned to do a few things well.”

“Well?”  We’re not talking about people in the top 10% of their field; we’re talking about people in the top 0.01% of their field.  How could they be so smug (…or perhaps humble?) to say that they just do a few things well?

Perhaps because it’s true.

They play to their strengths, and they have made it their life’s work to master their craft.  They may not be able to write a memorable poem or calculate the NPV of a capital purchase decision, but they can thread an ordinance into a three meter target at 400 mph.  They can hit a golf ball within inches of a pin with a million dollars on the line.  They don’t do everything well, but everything they do they do exceptionally well.

What about us?

So what does that mean to you and me at work?  It depends on your line of work.  If you are in sales, you should be able to tell your story as well as anyone alive.  You should know the questions that will uncover your customers’ greatest pains.  You should be so good at recalling the names of your customer’s children or your clients’ favorite pastimes that you rival the recall of their own parents.  You should be a ninja of principled negotiation and uncover win-win scenarios with a sixth sense.

If you are a leader, an engineer, an accountant, a pastor, a receptionist…your fundamentals will differ.  And, if you are new to your work, your fundamentals will differ from the veteran.  Just as in martial arts, you must first master the fundamentals of a beginner before you attempt to master the essentials of the expert.

Start by defining the fundamentals:

1. What do you do repeatedly?
2. What do you do in each engagement with your customers?  (Note: your customers may be inside or outside the organization.)
3. How do you create value for others and for your organization?
4. How do you recover a situation when things don’t go as planned?
5. What expertise do you (or could you) have that others value?

These are fundamentals.  Now, how do you master that fundamental?  That’s easy…PRACTICE!   Actually, to borrow an expression, it takes perfect practice…

“Perfect practice makes perfect”

Define what it means to do that fundamental behavior well, and do it on at least a weekly basis.  You will not master something you do just periodically.  Mastery requires consistency.

Then factor in some adversity.  Try to do your fundamental faster, more slowly, with distractions, or with someone who is combative.  Don’t just recite; spar.  Reflect.  Test.  Repeat.

In fact, the real question is less about what to practice or how to practice.  It is more about how to establish a routine of practice that doesn’t experience the same fate as your last resolution, diet, or workout plan.


To experience real growth, you will likely need to practice consistently for six months or more, and sustainable behavior change in a world of constant noise and quick results is one of the hardest challenges known to man.  No one does it.

Or do they?  Remember our elite athletes and soldiers?  They all did it.  Master musicians?  Yep.  Performing artists?  Yes.  Pick your expert…they practice to mastery.  So it can be done; just realize that it may be harder than you think, and it is precisely the reason we created IRUNURUN.

If you are ready to begin the journey to greatness, consider reading the other top 5 lessons of elite athletes and soldiers, and take the first step toward your life as a pro.

For discussion, if you have identified the fundamentals to practice to mastery for your line of work, we’d love to hear about them.  Please email us or share a comment here!