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Date Author Title
2012-04-01 Steve Gardiner Book Review: Talent is Overrated

Can we, as human beings, ever get past the tendency of looking at another person and envying them their talents? Not only can we, but we should, said Geoff Colvin in his book Talent Is Overrated; What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (Penguin Group, 2010).

As the title would suggest, Colvin argued that no great achievement was ever made based solely on talent. Greatness, on the other hand, is always a matter of what he called “deliberate practice.” This is not what most of us do when we participate in one of our hobbies, according to Colvin. It is more complicated than that and as he wrote, “Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.”


Colvin examined great performers in many fields—Mozart, Tiger Woods, Jerry Rice, The Beatles, and others—and determined that intelligence is not the path to greatness. An amount of intelligence is necessary, but in and of itself, it is not enough. He noted, for example, that in the business world, intelligence is “virtually useless in predicting how well a salesperson would perform.” He added, “Intelligence, as we usually think of it-a high IQ-is not a prerequisite to extraordinary achievement.”


The difference, then, lies in this idea of deliberate practice. “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,” Colvin explained.


How much practice is enough? Colvin found that the number is surprisingly consistent across disciplines. When it comes to deliberate practice, four to five hours seems to be the limit that people can handle and that is best broken into chunks of about ninety minutes per session. Accurate and timely feedback on this practice is critical and modeling by a competent performer in the domain can make the practice even more effective.


One other trait that the top performers had in common was a large understanding of their domain. They gathered information about their chosen field constantly and molded and formed it into a mental model of the domain. “This is one of the defining traits of great performers: They all possess large, highly developed, intricate mental models of their domains,” he wrote. This should be one of the joyful discoveries from this book, because it shows that anyone can use the patterns of the great performers and make significant changes and gain the advantages from these ideas in the same way.


Where people find the passion to pursue the endless hours of deliberate passion is a concern that Colvin handled well in this book. He cited research done by Mihalyi Csikcsentmihalyi, a researcher at the University of Chicago at the time, who found the family environment to be a key factor based on two dimensions, stimulation and support. Colvin reported, “The researchers classified family environments as stimulating or not and supportive or not, creating four possible combinations. Adolescents living in three of those combinations reported the typical low-interest, low-energy experience of studying. But in the fourth combination, the environment that was both stimulating and supportive, students were much more engaged, attentive, and alert in their studying.”


Finally, Colvin explained the “multiplier effect,” a very small advantage that is discovered early on and rewarded or emphasized in some way. A child who throws a ball accurately, a student who solves a problem quickly, a person whose drawing is lifelike—these early advantages are often compounded through later events and add up to a bigger advantage later in life.


Top level achievement is not for a select, chosen few, according to Colvin. The price is high but those willing to complete deliberate practice will achieve at much higher levels than those who aren't.



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