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Talent is Overrated

Author: Geoffrey Colvin
Title: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else
Published: Oct 4, 2008

In Talent is Overrated, Colvin explores and dismisses some of the most popular myths surrounding mastery. From expert musicians to sports heroes, he breaks down performances that many of us chalk up to innate ability and provides rational and reasoning as to why talent is based largely on hard work rather than some sort of born skill set.

Perhaps the most fundamental element of the book is a concept known as deliberate practice (something Gladwell alludes to in Outliers). Deliberate practice is characterized by several key elements including:

  1. It’s designed specifically to improve performance
  2. It can be repeated a lot
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally
  5. It isn’t much fun

Obviously, these elements come in stark contrast to the casual game of golf on the weekend or the neighborhood hoops game. Neither will produce extraordinary results. Colvin breaks down many popular performers (including Tiger Woods for example) and demonstrates the impact that deliberate practice had on their success.

Reading Notes

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance. (p. 7)

Contemporary athletes are superior not because they’re somehow different but because they train themselves more effectively. That’s an important concept for us to remember. (p. 9)

So it’s definitely surprising, at least at first, to find that research doesn’t support the view that extraordinary natural general abilities—as distinct from developed abilities like SF’s memory—are necessary for high achievement. In fact, in a wide range of fields, including business, the connection between general intelligence and specific abilities is weak and in some cases apparently nonexistent. (p. 39)

Psychologists might argue that people who do what Rubin did aren’t changing their personalities, they’re changing their behavior in order to override some part of their personalities. (p. 49)

“His maximum performance becomes a rigidly determinate quantity.” (p. 62) (Galton on ability)

“He is no longer tormented into hopeless efforts by the fallacious promptings of overweening vanity. . . .” He discards the foolish notion that he can ever do better, makes peace with the idea that he’s as good as he’ll ever be, and “finds true moral repose in an honest conviction that he is engaged in as much good work as his nature has rendered him capable of performing.” (p. 62) (Galton on ability)

“The conviction in the importance of talent appears to be based on the insufficiency of alternative hypotheses to explain the exceptional nature of expert performers.” (p. 63)

“the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” (p. 63)

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun. (p. 66)

While the best methods of development are constantly changing, they’re always built around a central principle: They’re meant to stretch the individual beyond his or her current abilities. (p. 68)

deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them. (p. 68).

The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome. (p. 117)

The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition—knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine. (p. 118)

Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have any natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. (p. 119)

Innovation doesn’t reject the past; on the contrary, it relies heavily on the past and comes most readily to those who’ve mastered the domain as it exists. (p. 157)

Extra responsibilities are always part of rising higher in an organization, but if they don’t come with the potential for more self-direction, the promotion will feel more like a burden than a reward. (p. 194)