This month the greatest female chess player in history decided to retire.
Judit Polgar has beaten the finest male Grandmasters of the modern era, including Kasparov, Karpov, Anand and today’s world number one, Magnus Carlsen.
She is so good, she rarely even bothered entering the women’s chess championships, preferring to duke it out with the men because it was more fun.
She has been the sole female in the men’s top 100 for an astonishing two decades. She even broke the record set by Bobby Fisher to become the youngest Grandmaster in history.
She is, quite simply, a chess genius.
But it’s how she became so great that is the tale most worth telling. Because every one of us could learn a lot from it, no matter what field we aspire to be successful in.
You see, Judit didn’t reach the very top of her world by natural talent. She was part of extraordinary experiment carried out by her father, Laszlo.
Although it is commonly believed that Chess Grandmaster’s are born not made, Laszlo believed that he could train anyone to become a Grandmaster. So he advertised for a woman to partner with him with the aim of having children that he could train to play chess. Incredibly, he found someone and 3 sisters were born. Laszlo then went about the task of teaching them everything he knew about the game, and designing training methods that would constantly enhance their skill levels.
Here are the results. Incredibly, all three became Grandmasters. And Judit became the best female player the world has ever known.
What’s the lesson from this astounding story?
I think it’s the following. Don’t rely on your natural talents – they matter far less than society believes. You can learn virtually anything. Especially in the business arena. If you’re scared of doing sales calls, you can learn how to do it well and even learn to enjoy it. If you’re bad at business financials, you can learn to handle them excellently too. If you’re chronically disorganized that’s not a genetic trait. You can study time management and end up a world class productivity expert.
There are virtually no skills you cannot acquire, particularly business skills.
But the Judit Polgar story also shows that great skill only comes after three elements are added: a) great effort, b) many years of practice and c) aiming high. Without these three components our skill levels would still improve, but not to the point of mastery.
As authors Daniel Coyle, David Shank and Geoff Colvin have each shown with their meticulously researched books on high performance, there is a path to greatness and it sure ain’t about innate talent.
It’s about constant learning, huge aspiration and putting in the hours under an excellent teacher.