Clearly, the world needs more virtuosos, but they don’t seem to spring forth, fully formed from the La Brea Tar Pits. Nature or nurture, something happens early in life to cause these exceptional creatures to roam the earth.
To better understand the process, I recently interviewed former Space Shuttle Commander and retired United Space Alliance CEO, Dick Covey. Covey, a former Air Force “brat” had no special advantages in his childhood, like private schooling or tutoring.
Although advanced in his studies, he was not what a teacher would call a “good” student-not because he couldn’t learn. On the contrary. Teachers found him challenging because he learned so quickly that he became bored with the pedestrian pace of his classes. He did have direction and focus, however. He read everything written about Alan Shepherd and knew he wanted to be an astronaut.
At the suggestion of his father’s friend, Covey applied to and was accepted by the Air Force Academy. When he entered in 1964, he immediately enrolled in an accelerated math and science program to prepare him for graduate work in astronautical and aeronautical engineering. Had he not enrolled in this program immediately after entering the Academy, he would not have qualified. From an early age, he received and heeded sound advice, and he constantly thought ahead.
Covey received a master’s degree in seven months and then began undergraduate pilot training in March of 1969. After graduation, he learned to fly three fighters in as many years.
After completing 339 combat missions in South East Asia and accumulating more than a thousand hours of flight time, Covey applied to test pilot school-the path to the Astronaut Corps. His dreams came to fruition when NASA selected him from thousands of applicants to fill one of fifteen slots.
During his sixteen years with NASA, Covey hired those who would follow in his footsteps and developed a sense of what separated the good from the great. Although all applicants had proven their skills, the demands of flying in the Astronaut Corps often uncovered things that separated those who would be successful from those who would not make the grade.
Sometimes an inability to learn at an extremely fast pace caused the astronaut to falter, but more commonly those who didn’t succeed exhibited what Covey called “poor judgment.” Sometimes this poor judgment showed up in their professional decision making or behavior, but more often it became evident in their personal lives.
Each industry defines the specifics of virtuosity, but one thing remains clear. Those who learn quickly, give others reason to trust them, and exhibit strong character overcome the major hurdles that impede the good but not great.
When botanists find a rare orchid, they scrutinize the characteristics of the superior seed and then research the environmental constructs that led to the exquisite flower: soil conditions, weather, temperature, moisture, etc. Similarly, when we encounter the human equivalent, we should examine the salient factors that led to the development of the virtuoso.
Covey’s high school teachers may have found him challenging, but I doubt many were surprised at his success. He identified an objective, listened to sage advice, delayed reward, and then committed himself to those who would develop his greatness. Does the credit for a bumper crop go to the plant or the farmer? Probably both.