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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else
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At least as far as most people are concerned, either you are born with a certain talent, or you are never going to become the next Mozart, the next Tesla, or the next Michael Jordan. Of course, even the most radical defenders of this idea are aware that even if you do have some kind of talent – or “a gift” as they sometimes call it – you are bound to remain stuck in mediocrity unless you work hard as well. In other words, it’s safe to say that talent is not everything, and that at least some part of the success can be attributed to hard work.
Well, according to Geoff Colvin – an American journalist, broadcaster, motivational speaker, and senior editor-at-large for “Fortune” – talent is even less important than what the previous line of thought suggests.
In his tellingly titled third book, “Talent Is Overrated,” Colvin reveals that the very idea of “talent” is nothing short of a scientifically unsupported myth, not much different from all those stories about sun gods and dragons, in that it is basically something the ancient people invented to explain the world, in this case, the extraordinariness of some people’s achievements.
“It turns out that our knowledge of great performance, like our knowledge of everything else, has actually advanced quite a bit in the past couple of millennia,” writes Colvin teasingly. “The growing mountain of research that has accumulated in just the past 30 years,” he adds just after, has “converged on some major conclusions that directly contradict most of what we all think we know about great performance.”
In short, what we now know is that geniuses like Tiger Woods, Beethoven or Walt Disney are not born once in every 100 years, for the simple reason that great performance is not 50% innate talent and as much hard work, but 99% deliberate practice.
Then again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s allow Colvin to present his case and demystify talent and everything related, myth by myth.
One way or another, it’s rather comforting to think that the difference between you and great performers is rooted in biology.
After all, you would have been a virtuoso violinist if you had the genes of Sarah Chang, wouldn’t you? It’s just that you didn’t have that luck at birth, so now you never will, although you’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got.
The only problem with that line of thinking is that, according to performance research carried out over the past three decades, great performance seems to owe very little to innate talent. Moreover, it seems to owe even less to experience, and barely anything to one’s intelligence and memory.
Before we reveal what’s the real thing that separates great performers from the rest of us (spoiler alert: it’s mostly your fault that you’re not as good as Sarah Chang), let’s examine these claims more closely.
If you are producing meaningful output in some domain at the level of an adult before you’ve reached the age of ten, then you are a “child prodigy” or, as the Germans would say (with the appropriate awe-inducing accent), a Wunderkind.
The archetypal Wunderkind – whose image you’ll find in encyclopedia articles on the subject – is, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who, as everybody knows, started composing at the age of five. What very few people are aware of, however, is that this was not due to some “God-given gift,” but due to years and years of training.
“How’s that possible,” you ask? Well, you see, Wolfgang’s father, Leopold Mozart, was a successful performer and composer in his own right, and, more importantly, one of the foremost music teachers of his day and age.
After the birth of his son, Leopold decided to focus on training him to become a composer, which is why Mozart was able to play the violin and the keyboard before he was able to use a spoon or the toilet. In fact, by the time of his first compositions, Mozart had already been taught to become a composer by a specialist for more than three years – both directly and via his father’s lessons for his five years older sister (who was, unsurprisingly, also a child-composer and was Wolfgang’s first idol)!
And it’s not like Mozart’s earliest compositions were original! They were, as everybody’s first attempts are, imitations and rearrangements of the works of other composers.
The point (to cut a long story short) is rather simple: the only thing exceptional in the case of Mozart is the early age at which he started training – not the training itself or his genes. And as Colvin demonstrates, the same holds true in the case of that other poster boy for child prodigies, Tiger Woods: rather than a Wunderkind, he was just a simple golfer with a head start and a smart trainer-dad.
“OK,” you say, “then talent has to do a lot with experience!” After all, if experience is the time you spend doing a certain task, you can say that both Mozart and Woods were experienced even at the age of eight.
Interestingly, however, studies have shown that it is usually the other way around, i.e., that, in most professions, after a certain point, gaining more experience is synonymous with getting worse at your job. For example, experienced doctors consistently score lower on tests of medical knowledge than enthusiastic beginners. Auditors and stockbrokers as well. And it’s not like you’ve become a world-class accountant even though you’ve been crunching numbers 8 hours a day for the past 30 years! Now, how is that even possible?
Well, there is a perfectly reasonable twofold explanation for each of these cases:
In other words, although the field in question has evolved, older generations have remained doing what they had been doing decades ago. They were, in short, training themselves to become better the wrong way, which is why they ended up being worse.
If it isn’t obvious by now, we are about to tell you that neither one’s IQ is a deciding factor when it comes to success and great performance. And that is true even if the person in question is, say, a doctor, a musician, or a chess player. That’s right: some people have become international chess masters despite possessing below-average IQ!
To make matters even clearer (or maybe more complicated?), in a famous experiment, researchers discovered that handicappers with lower IQs were better at predicting the results of a horse race than those with higher IQs. In fact, one of the best handicappers was a construction worker with an IQ of merely 85 and one of the worst a lawyer with an IQ of 118!
On the other side of the coin, some of the people with the highest IQ quotients in history ended up accomplishing practically nothing. “Whatever it is that makes these people special,” writes Colvin, “it doesn't depend on superhuman general abilities. On that score, a great many of them are amazingly average.”
So, if it isn’t the IQ, the experience, or innate talent that generates great performance, then what is it? To discover the answer to this question, we need to go back about half a century in time, in the 1960s, and visit a Central European then-Communist country by the name of Hungary.
Firmly believing that “great performers are made, not born,” László Polgár, a Hungarian educational psychologist, asked publicly for a woman who would be willing to marry him, have children with him, and help him conduct an interesting experiment. Amazingly enough, a schoolteacher named Klára agreed to the proposal, and – soon after – she gave birth to the first of the three daughters László planned to make chess grandmasters, despite him (or Klara) not being especially versed in the game.
Interestingly enough, this (his lack of chess skill) was one of the reasons why he chose to raise them to be world-class chess players. But there are two more, and these are arguably even more interesting. Namely, unlike many other fields of human endeavor (think poetry or sociology), chess’ competence is very measurable, so Polgár knew nobody could ever question the success of his experiment if it worked.
Finally, chess was heavily male-dominated at the time (it is today as well), and almost nobody believed in the 1960s that women were capable of competing at the highest level, let alone able to beat highly-rated players. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, Polgár’s strange experiment worked! The couple’s oldest daughter, Susan, became the first woman ever to be named a grand master, and the couple’s youngest daughter, Judit, isn’t only generally considered the strongest female chess player of all time, but, on August 2005, became one of the Top 10 chess players in the world, male or female.
So, how did László and Klára Polgár did it? Through something Anders Ericsson and his colleagues of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education would, years later, name “deliberate practice.”
“The differences between expert performers and normal adults,” they wrote in a scholarly paper analyzing why some violinists are better than others, “reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain."
So, there you have it! Great performance is not about what you’re born with, nor about how many hours of effort you put into something. It’s about how your training actually looks like, i.e., how deliberate your training effort is. This is only one of the five essential elements that characterize deliberate practice. Let’s have a look at each of them.
The keyword in the most important attribute of deliberate practice is “designed.” Just sitting in front of the piano and playing the things you know how to play will get you nowhere – even if you do it five hours a day.
Deliberate practice is about going out of the comfort zone and stretching beyond your current abilities. This is something that can usually be done only with the help of a teacher able to identify your “learning zone” (where you can improve) and keeping you at bay from the “panic zone” (where you won’t improve).
Ted Williams is widely considered one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, and Moe Norman one of the best golfers. Of course, they became that not because they were naturally talented, but because they practiced deliberately for years: Norman would hit 800 golf balls a day, every day, for his entire 16-year career, and Williams kept practicing until his hands would start bleeding.
True, you can’t do this with everything, but, in general, Colvin writes, “the most effective deliberate practice activities are those that can be repeated at high volume.”
According to Steve Kerr, former chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs, practicing without feedback is like “bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level.” What Kerr wants to illustrate through this analogy is rather self-evident: if you can’t see the effects of your practice, it is all but impossible to get better, and quite possible to lose interest in a very short time. That’s why deliberate practice works better in some fields (say, sports), and is best when you have a teacher.
An effort of focus and concentration, all deliberate practice is mentally draining. It’s not just the physical part (playing the same tune over and over again), it’s also the mental: being aware of where you’re making mistakes and how you can improve. Precisely because of this that four or five hours per day is the maximum one can put into practicing deliberately. And that’s the upper limit for even elite athletes and musicians.
Well, of course, it isn’t! But that’s what separates the best from the rest: the former are capable of enduring throughout the boredom. After all, if it was fun and enjoyable, everyone would have been a great performer, isn’t that so?
Dubbed “excellent” by The Wall Street Journal and “provocative” by Time, “Talent Is Overrated” is yet another 10,000-hours-themed book. However, it is both well-written and brimming with anecdotes of all sorts and walks of life, and ignoring its bits of advice is hardly a smart move. Following it, on the other hand, can change your life.
Don’t practice by yourself: find a teacher. And heed to suggestions even after you surpass the master’s knowledge and skill.
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