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The Long Road to Success

The Long Road to Success

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

I’ve just read Jeroen De Flander’s book “The Art of Performance”. He cites numerous examples where people of all ages and abilities have achieved greatness through demonstrating three stages of behaviour: 1. Passion and Purpose, 2. Deep Practice and 3. Persistence.

Many of us fail at each or any of these three stages, but those that don’t, invariably achieve their aims (or in many cases the aim of their parents).

Take for example psychologist Laszlo Polgar who, before he was married, said his future children would become geniuses. All three of his daughters did, in fact, become brilliant world renowned chess players. Polgar chose chess because it’s not subjective - there can be no doubt whether you are good or not.

This reminded me of Andre Agassi’s autobiography which starts with the admission that he’s always hated tennis but his father had made him practice with a homemade turbo charged ball machine until he became the world’s number 1. The fact that he sank to the world’s 190th best when he met and married Brook Shields

(and then rose again to number 1 when he married Steffi Graf) only serves to reinforce the fact that tennis is played in the mind too.

Now obviously someone with the physique of a national jump jockey is unlikely to succeed as a sumo wrestler and vice versa. But within reason de Flander and previously Matthew Syed in his brilliant book ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice’, give numerous examples where dedicated practise - the 10,000 hours rule is often referenced - leads to excellence. Syed himself was a table tennis champion and, in his neighbourhood, lived also the female tennis champion and other top ten competitors. This was not a coincidence or a statistical freak. It was down to the fact that they all belonged to the same youth club, where one of the staff was a table tennis enthusiast, who passed his passion onto his eager pupils.


De Flander references Ayako Sakakibara, from Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo, who took 24 children and taught 22 of them perfect pitch (two having dropped out for personal reasons). Perfect pitch is usually only found in 0.1% of the population. Another example is Dan McLaughlin a professional photographer who, at the age of 30, without having ever played a full round of golf, decided he wanted to join the PGA tour as a professional golfer. There are 80 million golfers and only 240 on the tour. He had a one in 326,000 chance. McLaughlin didn’t make it because of injury, but he did join the top 1%. And demonstrated, to me at least, that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results.

You might say that this is because you never hear of the ones who fail. But you do.

Think of the number of wingers that Manchester United have produced who were going to be the next Ryan Giggs, but have only gone on to be the next John Aston Jr. (still no small feat). There are many reasons why Ben Thornley, Keith Gillespie, Adnan Januzaj, Luke Chadwick may have faltered - desire and injury being common factors. But we are still waiting, just as we waited on Ryan Giggs to be the next George Best.

Alastair Campbell in his book on leadership asks the coaches at Manchester United who was the better player, Rooney or Ronaldo, at 20/21. The answer is revealing. They say that it’s Rooney at the moment but that Ronaldo will go on to be one of the world’s best players because of his attitude, desire and work rate. Both went on to have great careers but only Ronaldo went on to be the best in the world.

In meetings with architects in many different forums over the years the subject of how to stop Norman Foster “winning everything” has been raised. The latest was last year’s Stirling Prize for the fantastic Bloomberg Building. My answer is always the same. We all have to get better. Better at design, better at management, better at PR, better at business. Then we stand a chance. It’s pointless aspiring to be the best unless we are prepared to work at it to achieve it.

Norman is undoubtedly an exceptionally talented individual but has achieved his high level of sustained success through skill and work, recruiting and managing a team through his partners who produce consistently excellent work.

Both Syed and De Flander cite Mozart who is also widely acknowledged to be a genius from birth. But both point out that whilst he did write his first symphony at the age of 7, it actually wasn’t very good. His father didn’t tell him that though. He encouraged him to write more and took him on a European tour. Immersed in music, he became quite good.

Most successful people put their success down to work and practice rather than talent and skill. Jack Nicholson said “The more I practice the luckier I become”. Brian Clough turned John McGovern into a European cup winner. Alex Ferguson did the same with Nicky Butt.

Paul Smith puts his global success down to the fact that he was the only fashion designer that took up an invitation to join a government trade delegation to Japan. He spent 10 hours contorting his 6’4” frame in economy class, but was treated like royalty when he arrived. He now has eight shops in Japan having started out with just one, in Byard Lane, Nottingham, and a passion, a talent and an aptitude for sustained success. All the people I admire have had long careers. Richard Rogers would still be famous if he had rested on his laurels after winning the Centre Pompidou with Renzo Piano from over 600 entries. But he wanted to do more. He persevered, won Lloyds of London and many other landmark projects, and has now enacted his succession plan with new young partners.

WW+P is doing the same. We want to ensure that the practice thrives long after the original partners have retired. Too many of the practices I admired when I was studying failed to engage the next generation. Succession planning in architecture is critical. 15 years ago the three founders brought in Rob Naybour, who has developed our infrastructure team into a world class unit working globally on city shaping projects. We have also recruited and trained other sector leads for aviation, housing, mixed use development, and master planning who are helping us diversify to win design and deliver successful projects in each sector. Most recently, we have established three innovation groups, which are looking at the future of living, the future of moving and the future of building. By nurturing our talent and mentoring everyone in the studio, we continue the journey on the long road to success.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Related Thoughts

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.