Talent Is Overrated – Geoff Colvin

In Talent is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin rejects the popular notion that the genius of a Tiger Woods, a Mozart or a Warren Buffett is inborn uniquely to only a few individuals. He cites research that refutes the value of innate ability and he provides numerous examples of the intensely hard work that high achievement demands.

I read this book after I had read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and saw a lot of similarity between the two.  Indeed, they both have as part of their argument that success in life is not due to an in-born talent, but has a lot to do with deliberate practice.

Both cite the Anders Ericson study done in a German music school several years ago. The findings of the study were that three main factors separate truly great performers (musicians who had potential for successful solo careers) from good performers (musicians who could make a living from their music but weren’t going to be at the top of their field) from decent performers (musicians who were more interested in teaching than performing).

The three factors are:

  1. The amount of time spent practicing.
  2. The level of family support.
  3. Involvement of somebody like a coach.

Both Gladwell and Colvin focus on the first of these factors, boiling it down to something called the Ten Thousand Hour Rule. If you practice any skill for twenty hours a week for ten years, you will become a genius at it.

This is basically Colvin’s argument. Of course, the quality of the practice matters, in addition to the quantity. The practice time needs to be designed to improve performance, should be repeatable, should be mentally demanding, shouldn’t be fun, and continuous feedback should be available to the person practicing.  Colvin calls this Deliberate Practice, and it’s the key to success.

Colvin duly acknowledges that deliberate practice “is a large concept, and to say that it explains everything would be simplistic and reductive.” Colvin goes on to say, “Critical questions immediately present themselves:  What exactly needs to be practiced? Precisely how?  Which specific skills or other assets must be acquired?  The research has revealed answers that generalize quite well across a wide range of fields.”

Colvin’s insights offer a reassurance that almost anyone’s performance can be improved, sometimes substantially, even if it isn’t world-class. Talent is overrated if it is perceived to be the most important factor. It isn’t. In fact, talent does not exist unless and until it is developed…and the only way to develop it is (you guessed it) with deliberate practice. When Ben Hogan was asked the “secret” to playing great golf, he replied, “It’s in the dirt.”

I liked this book. I think hard work is important, and the book certainly confirms that hard work for the sake of hard work is not going to create success – specific, focused hard work is what is necessary.  Hard work must be mentally and sometimes physically challenging.  It must be a risk and it is only through putting yourself “out there” that you have a chance of getting out there.

Ask yourself:

What specific skills do I need to develop?
How will I do that?
What drills or practice do I need to perform to develop that skill? 
How can I set aside enough time to become proficient and then an expert at that new skill?

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One Response to Talent Is Overrated – Geoff Colvin

  1. Anonymous says:

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