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Recently read: Talent is Overrated

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on February 3, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Geoff Colvin. Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

Some people suck at what they do; others are good; a few are great. What explains the difference? People often answer this question by pointing to talent, the raw natural gift that some people seem to have which gives them the edge over others, whether the field is mathematics or golf. But talent, says Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor at Large for Fortune Magazine, is overrated. According to Colvin, the success of high achievers is more or less the result of many years—typically a minimum of around 10 years, full time—of deliberate practice in a field. Deliberate practice does not consist in simply performing the relevant activity. Rather,
[i]t 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.

Playing tennis to improve your game doesn’t count as deliberate practice. Taking your game apart, identifying weaknesses, systematically drilling yourself in the weak areas—that is deliberate practice. It’s difficult to spend more than four hours a day on deliberate practice, and the limit explains why it can be so hard to catch up to high achievers who have started earlier than us in some field. But it’s oodles of deliberate practice that makes people great at what they do, along with all the conditions that make deliberate practice possible (luck, encouragement, financial support, etc., which Colvin mention in passing and then mostly ignores). In an interesting discussion, Colvin surveys a range of possible responses and counterarguments to his position, attempting to rob talent of most of its explanatory value when it comes to success and achievement.

If all this sounds too obvious to bother setting down in a book, just think for a moment about how often raw talent is offered as an explanation for differences in human achievement. If this is misguided, as I suspect, there’s value in pointing it out, and in getting into the details of the debate about the role of raw talent, especially in fields like music or sports where we’re inclined to put a lot of emphasis on it.

If all this sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because you’ve already been exposed, in one way or another, to the work of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson’s seminal paper (with Krampe and Tesch-Römer), “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” (Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993), pp. 363-406) for example, sets all this out very clearly in about 40 pages. Colvin graciously acknowledges his deep debt to Ericsson’s work throughout the book, and notes in the acknowledgments that Ericsson even met with him several times while he was writing it. Colvin says that without Ericsson his book could not have been written, and I can only concur. Even so, I was struck reading through Ericsson’s paper how closely Colvin has stuck to him, right down to his use of Francis Galston as a foil, and a great many of the examples. As for which you should spend you time on, Colvin’s summary of Ericsson is certainly easier going; Ericsson’s account is written in dry academic prose and only accessible from a decent library, but gives you all you need and more in far fewer pages than Colvin’s account. Take your pick.

Alas, as soon as Colvin leaves Ericsson behind you start to see why he was so reluctant to do so. The rest of the book consists mainly of not-terribly-adventurous and/or appealing suggestions for designing organizations to allow greater opportunities for deliberate practice and a series of oddly menacing pep talks intended to inspire us to greatness.

Pulling together the threads, the pep talk goes something like this: Greatness is possible, of course, because it’s mainly a matter of deliberate practice, which is in our control, as opposed to talent, which is not. (Set aside as inconvenient for the purpose of pep talks that the conditions which allow for deliberate practice are frequently not within our control. Also set aside that, according to Colvin’s own theory, we’re bound to be way behind people who had a head start on us in racking up hours of deliberate practice.) It’s a good thing greatness is possible, because it’s also increasingly necessary. A dark undercurrent of anxiety courses through this book just beneath the sunny can-do attitude shimmering on the surface: “We can do it! (And we’d fucking better.)” Globalization has unleashed hoards of hungry workers around the world to nip at our heels. The world is picking up speed; everyone is getting better and better. “If you think your job isn’t exportable, you may be right—but think about it hard before you relax.” For the rest of us, “[t]he costs of being less than truly world class are growing.”

And it’s not just globalization that is putting intense competitive pressure on individuals and people to reach new heights. What’s going on is part of a deeper trend in the world economy. To see this, Colvin explains in a passage that really deserves to be quoted at length,

we need to take a step back. How many offers of credit cards do you get in the mail every day? Do your kids get them? how about your pet? . . . It’s happening because the world’s financial institutions are awash in money. They literally have more than they know what to do with, and they’re saying: Take some, please!

Those financial institutions aren’t alone. Companies of all kinds have far more money than they need. The cash held by U.S. companies is hitting all-time records. Companies are using some of this money to buy back their own stock at record rates. When a company does this, it’s saying to its investors: We don’t have any good ideas for what to do with this, so here—maybe you do.

These are all manifestations of a much larger phenomenon. For roughly five hundred years—from the explosion of commerce and wealth that accompanied the Renaissance until the late twentieth century—the scarce resource in business was financial capital. If you had it, you had the means to create more wealth, and if you didn’t, you didn’t. That world is now gone. Today, in a change that is historically quite sudden, financial capital is abundant. The scarce resource is no longer money. It’s human ability.

(Talent is Overrated was published in 2008. I saw it prominently featured on the prime display tables at the front of the Union Square Barnes and Noble in late December. In a nice bit of comic timing, it had to share a table with Michael Lewis’ Panic, which is, in part, about the massive and terrifying global credit crunch we’re now going through.)

But there’s good news here too: because deliberate practice tends not to be very much fun, you’ll be competing with a lot of people who won’t be able to keep it up.

As for our kids, while starting to train the next generation of business leaders for success at an early age might not sound appealing to some of us, “other societies may not hesitate,” to follow the wisdom contained in books like Talent is Overrated, so
[i]f governments or family in some of these countries decide to focus on turning out managers who are whizzes at age twenty-one and will just keep getting better, we will have to confront that reality and perhaps think again about our own views.

Indeed we might.

Colvin has himself an interesting theme here, and when he’s in Ericsson’s hands, he sometimes manages to bring it to life. Unfortunately, the book’s good qualities are often eclipsed by its more annoying ones. Although many of the examples in the book are drawn from sports and music, Talent is Overrated seems to be targeted very much at the managerial class. If managers read the book and come away with a new commitment to developing human talent in their organizations, so much the better. As for the rest of us, ymmv.