If you’re in the UK, you may have been watching the amazing young people performing in the BBC Young Musician 2018 competition. Or possibly you’ve watched young people achieving amazing things in competitions like the Commonwealth Games. Very often you’ll hear people talk about how talented these young people are; the term ‘natural talent’ gets bandied around in sporting circles very frequently. But if talent doesn’t really exist (as many writers discuss), then what is the key to achievement? What does it take to be an ‘overnight success’?
It’s not just about the hours
Pretty much everyone involved in sports or performance has heard about the 10 000 hours rule. Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, very simply put it puts forward the idea that to achieve mastery in a skill one needs to do 10 000 hours of practice. Of course, it isn’t that simple. Anyone who has seen a child mindlessly playing through a Bach Minuet over and over with exactly the same mistakes every time knows that just doing the hours mindlessly isn’t enough. We need to do deliberate practice – something that actually deals with the mistakes and moves us forward. So what is it that makes a success from an also-ran?
I’ve been reading Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin became a huge name in comedy in the mid-seventies, and it would be tempting to think that his talent sprang fully-formed onto the TV screen. However, in his autobiography Martin gives a brilliant description of the sheer quantity of work that it took to be an overnight success.
There are two key principles that led to Martin’s eventual success, and they mirror principles FM Alexander discussed in his work: analysis; and evaluation.
Principles for overnight success: Analysis
Martin certainly did the hours – he started working at Disneyland selling programmes at age 10! But he didn’t just sell programmes. He watched the man who did rope tricks, and learned them well enough to become an assistant. He frequented the magic shop, started working there, and learned the tricks so well that he got occasional work as a magician. And he spent time in the auditorium watching the comedians and analysing their timing. Note that the young Martin didn’t just copy the jokes. He worked to understand how the professionals got their results – he tried to learn the principles behind the laughs.
FM Alexander would have commended the young Martin’s efforts. He wrote:
To achieve these results they must study and master the same principles, but they could never reproduce them by a series of imitative acts divorced from knowledge of the processes involved and skill in using these processes. 
Principles for overnight success: Evaluation
However, the teenage Martin didn’t content himself with just analysing the efforts of others. He also evaluate his own performance. In his book he shares an example page of the performance notes he used to write after every performance.
“I kept scrupulous records of how each gag played after my local shows for the Cub Scouts or the Kiwanis Club. “Excellent!” or “Big laugh!” or “Quiet,” I would write … then I would summarize how I could make the show better next time.” 
By doing this kind of work, Martin mirrored the kind of evaluation that Alexander himself undertook when trying to solve his vocal problems. FM didn’t just work on a trial-by-error basis. In Evolution of a Technique he gives a clear description of how he made hypotheses, tested them, and then evaluated the results in order to refine his ideas.
And Martin, like FM Alexander, kept working and refining over a long period of time: “My act was eclectic, and it took ten more years for me to make sense of it.” So time IS important, but it isn’t the only, or even the primary factor. If we want to be an ‘overnight success’, we have to be prepared to do the long hours not of mindless repetition, but of analysis and evaluation. Those are the skills that we need to hone if we truly want to succeed.
Martin, S., Born Standing Up, London, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p.36.
Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.121.
 Martin, op.cit., p.51.
 ibid., pp.65-6.