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Posted: October 06, 2009

The secret to becoming a superstar

It's not easy to be excellent, but consider these three little words

Scott Halford

If you think it's a hassle to move, then compare that with what it takes to change your behavior. Multiply the effort it takes to change your home address by at least 50 and you will begin to understand what it takes to achieve new, lasting, positive behaviors.

It's not easy to be excellent, and ironically, this is good news for those who want to excel. Most people won't do what it takes to be excellent. but superstars don't give up when it gets tough. They keep on going, and that is often the difference between them and those who "could have been." Keep on reading if you want to learn how to "keep on going."

The change process is biological

All behavioral change begins as a thought. It's the desire behind the thought that predicts if it sticks or is marked for extinction. Recent research at the University of California in Los Angeles shows that our brains become very grumpy when we try to change things that are comfortable.

Regions of our brain called the basal ganglia are responsible. Simply speaking, they are the "hard drive" of our behavior, the place we store the behaviors we do over and over again. The purpose of storing such information is so we don't have to think about all of the steps each time we do them.

Think of driving a car. Most of us don't think about all that we do to operate a car, especially in home territory. But, put yourself in a rental car in a city you don't know, in rush hour traffic and observe what happens. Most of us will be quickly exhausted. You also might feel frustration, panic, hyper-alertness, anxiety and a number of other mind-numbing emotions.

That's because everything new - skills, ideas, products, information - is sifted through the prefrontal cortex in the brain. That's our "RAM" memory. It's a temporary holding tank for anything new until we deliberately act to move it to the basal ganglia for permanent keeping. That happens through repetition.

The prefrontal cortex consumes a lot of energy, and it takes enormous effort to process anything new. The only way to get past this energy-intensive gate in our brain is to "mark" the new information, skill or idea for growth. Otherwise, it is marked for extinction and is booted out in favor of what we already know how to do. Many people give up at this point so that they can feel comfortable again. That's the basal ganglia talking you into doing what you've always done.

You have to want it

You mark behaviors for growth by doing a few things very consistently. Understand that your basal ganglia will not let just anything get into their privileged palace. You will have to prove over and over again that you really want the behavior. It's a test.

Think of your basal ganglia as muscles that you grow with consistent desire and activity. The only way to get more skills is to first get one skill perfected, and then, add another skill to work on. You do it over and over again and keep doing it until you have enough behaviors in a skill set to perform at high levels.

Those who keep doing it become the pros. Those who give up get to watch the pros.

The process forces you to choose the skills you sincerely want so as not to waste space with things that will just clutter your expertise and ability. Former basketball superstar, Michael Jordan is arguably one of the best athletes of his time - not just basketball player, but overall athlete.

Even at the height of his career, his basal ganglia required him to consistently commit to specific skills that created his basketball ability. He kept focused. He didn't dilute his athletic prowess to become a scratch golfer or a Wimbledon-caliber tennis player. He might have had the athletic ability to do so, but he channeled his desire and focus into what was required to achieve and maintain his quick moves, "natural" thinking and ability on the basketball court. Few people are ever all-around brilliant at everything they try.

You have to be able to do it today and tomorrow and the next day and...

As you might guess, the first step toward excellence in any field is desire or motivation. You must really want whatever behavior or skill you're trying to acquire. The basal ganglia makes permanent storage of any behavior tough and a half-desire will fail almost every time.

The next step: establish a goal that your brain can visualize. If you try to lose 50 pounds, your brain has a hard time seeing you 50 pounds lighter tomorrow. However, if you say you want to lose 50 pounds, and that tomorrow you'll lose 10 ounces, you could probably figure out many things that would get you there: no cream in your coffee, no sodas, skip breads at dinner, walk briskly an extra 15 minutes, etc. Your brain can see you doing that and therefore, your chances of success go up.

The basal ganglia respond to repetition. The more consistently you can DO something, the more rapidly it will get stored and depart from that energy-zapping space of the prefrontal cortex.

TRAIN your BRAIN for 21 days

So, begin with desire, get a focused goal that you can practice or address every single day for 21 days. After 21 days, you have the right to continue.

Most would say you have a habit, but the basal ganglia are tougher than that. The neural pathways that create the automatic storage and retrieval system of the basal ganglia are like fiber optic cables. They contain several neural strands.

After doing the steps above, you will have built a new neural strand. If you cannot do something everyday for 21 days, you won't have a strong enough strand to lead to your desired behavior. If you give up before the 21 days, you can start all over again. During this 21 day period you will learn how serious you really are about acquiring a new behavior or skill.

The brain learns and stores behaviors through repetition. The basic model is STTARR:

S - see a skill or picture a behavior
T - Try it
T- Think about how you did with it (get feedback)
A- Adjust (make it easier or harder)
R- Reward yourself (mental celebrations, a little gloating, nothing too big is necessary)
R- Repeat every day for 21 days. And then keep going.

The more often you repeat the behavior the more your brain is rewarding you by thickening the pathway that leads to you performing the behavior easily and comfortably.

Keep going, that's what the pros do

If you make it to the 21 days, you're ready to start playing in the semi-pros. It takes 60 to 90 days of doing the same thing everyday to get second nature behavior. You still have to think for a few seconds about the behavior, but it's relatively rapid and more and more comfortable.

It's not as quick as the true pros, though. Once you reach 120 to 180 days of consistent practice you will have built a neural pathway that is stored in the basal ganglia for easy and instant retrieval. If you get a lot of those neural pathways around a certain area of expertise, you can pretty much write your own ticket to success.

Keep on going

Now you're ready for another new success behavior. The more adept you become at learning, the more layers you can add simultaneously. The brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it, the more you can do with it. The more you learn, the more you can learn.

That's what it takes to become a superstar. You can only get there if you go through the struggle and focus of that first behavioral/skill addition or change. But, whatever you do, you beat the odds if you keep on going. Good luck!

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Scott Halford is the president of Complete Intelligence™, LLC. His new book, "Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success” is available now. Contact Scott at www.BeAShortcut.com.

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Readers Respond

This is one of the best, most impactful articles I've read this year. It's given me both the 'want to' and the 'how to'to train my brain. I've forwarded it on to my wife and my adult children. The analogy of driving a car in a new city is one that will stick in my basal ganglia. By Eric Chester on 2009 10 08
Great article. I had read many years ago in the Gale Sayers book, "I Am Third" about the need to do something for 21 days to create a new habit. Thanks for the article. By Mark Kuta on 2009 10 07
Love MR. Halford's articles! By gaylene on 2009 10 07

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