Talent Is Overrated notes

This is my summary of, and notes on, Talent Is Overrated, a fascinating book by Geoff Colvin.
Innate abilities pretty much don’t exist. Colvin gives the examples of Mozart and Tiger Woods, two people often thought of as blessed with superhuman abilities. Yet when you examine their lives you see that both had fathers who began training them at extremely early ages, in fields the fathers were expert in. By the time Mozart and Tiger emerged as serious contenders in their fields both had been working hard at it for a very long time (the pieces Mozart composed as a child are not considered great works, just curiosities).
Intelligence and memory also are overrated. Chess experts, for example, are often thought of as having been born with terrific memories. They can remember the arrangements of chess pieces very well, long after the game, and keep lots of such arrangements in their heads. However, when chess experts are shown random arrangements – that is, arrangements that could not happen in a real game, just chess pieces randomly placed on a board – they are no better than anyone else at remembering them. So they can remember the game situations because they study game situations, not because of any innate ability.
So what does make outstanding performers outstanding? It is not just experience, as we all know people who have done their jobs for many years and don’t get any better, in fact many people get worse at activities with time.
What makes the great performers great is deliberate practice. Note that word “deliberate.” Just hitting a bucket of golf balls is deliberate practice. And just doodling on the guitar, or playing songs you already know well, isn’t it either. The features of deliberate practice are:

  • It must be designed specifically to improve performance
  • It can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback on results is continuously available
  • It is highly demanding
  • It isn’t much fun, or at least is “not inherently enjoyable.”

I don’t really agree with that last part. I think, however, that one has to redefine “fun” or “enjoyment” to enjoy practice. Just as a mountain climber has a different kind of fun from someone taking a stroll in the park – you have to really enjoy hard work and pushing yourself.
So what can we take from this book? In a way, it is liberating. We don’t have to wish we were born with any particular talents. If you want to be good at something, just start practicing it in a deliberate way. Do that every day, and eventually you will be good at it.
But on the other hand it is sobering: If we are middle-aged and want to start learning to play tennis, play guitar, or whatever, how can we compete with people who started decades before us and have been practicing hard all along? It probably isn’t going to happen. You probably won’t be one of the world’s best at anything you didn’t start a long time ago, and stay with. You just don’t have time.
But let’s say you are not trying to become the world’s best. You are just trying to improve. This book points at how to do it: deliberate practice done regularly.
Applying this to the way I study and teach blues guitar, I think we have our means of “feedback on results” in the old recordings we work with. If your rendition sounds closer to the record than it did yesterday, your practice is going in the right direction!
And when you come to class and get corrected by the teacher, you also are getting feedback. Try to “give yourself a lesson” when you practice at home. Don’t feel you’ve practiced just because you’ve made some sounds. Listen to yourself critically, correct yourself where you go wrong, and make yourself do it again, better. Hard work? Yes, that’s the point. Maybe do that kind of practice for 20 or 30 minutes, and then reward yourself with another 10 or 20 minutes of just doodling or playing songs you already know, if that is more fun.
Another great observation of the book is that great performers defy age. Oh, they decline at tests of speed, coordination, response time etc. as they get older, just like anyone else. But not within their domain of expertise. There, they retain their skills. Of course they have continued to practice as they get older!
So there you have it. Although he uses examples mostly from music and sports, Colvin relates a lot of these ideas to the business world – probably because there is more of a market in selling books to businesspeople than just to musicians and athletes. If you are interested in applying the “talent is overrated” concept to business, or just want to read more about it, go ahead and read the book. But if you just want to get better at playing music, then put down the book and pick up the guitar.

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6 Comments on "Talent Is Overrated notes"

  1. Norm Willis
    29/06/2009 at 12:10 pm Permalink

    Hi Steve, Very interesting book and review. The point that deliberate practice and critique are needed to become good at something seems obvious. I disagree with the author that innate talent doesn’t play a role. Yes, Tiger and Wolfgang got headstarts from committed parents, but there are probably an incredible number of kids who had similar advantages in some area, yet never realized that potential. One can argue that it may just be motivation rather than talent that makes one great and not another; however, that wouldn’t explain the occasional savant who, on their own, begin playing an instrument (usually piano) at an incredibly early age and become expert even though they have trouble with basic day to day life.
    I think dedicated directed practice can help anyone, but innate talent (to some degree at least) and a parental or similar head-start can lead to greatness.
    Regards, Norm

  2. chezztone
    29/06/2009 at 5:12 pm Permalink

    Norm — Thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, we all think that innate talent exists — that’s what makes this book so revolutionary and so interesting. I gave a very very brief summary of it here. Please read the book and then see if you are convinced! I want to hear your comments again after you read it. Thanks again. And keep practicing!

  3. Bruce Salem
    23/08/2010 at 11:26 am Permalink

    I just glanced at this book, it was mis-shelved in the computer section; it belongs in Business and Management, which is the main problem I have with its ideas. Aside from the fact that Colvin seems to completely misunderstand the magnitude of the achievement of an 11 year old Mozart to write seven symphonies and get the function of the Augmented Sixth Chord established, and that the message of concerted practice at anything is obvious, it is the audience the book is directed to that bothers me the most, the very goal-oriented results-driven who distract the people who work with them from creativity and the support it needs. It seems to me that the most important factor in talent is a zen quality to be single minded in attention to the craft and to not care or be distracted either by what others want or say, least of all the average idiot who manages others. America will revert to a second class power because of its focus on results rather than its encouragement of talent. The latter will find better soil elsewhere, and not in Asia, but in Europe where it thrives because of a better toleration and not a short term ROI, that spoils things here. Cheap and Chintz will not reward Patience.

  4. Bruce Salem
    23/08/2010 at 11:43 am Permalink

    Just an after thought on what I wrote above. The issue that is most glossed over in books written for business people about the people they manage is forming goals, and that relates to talent where goals were formed long before some business-types encounters someone whose abilities he may or may not call talent. It is because the business person does not recognize talent; he only sees a possible fit with HIS goals. And that is where Colvin’s idea falls apart. People become famous, or get recognition, or get hired, or get rich, NOT because they are talented, but because the average idiots in the world see value in what they do. The lesson of history is that most of whom we recognize from the past who have contributed to us with what we would call talent go unrecognized by their contemporaries and if we are to encourage that as a result the very last people whose judgement we ought to trust are results-driven business people. They don’t know anything; their word is not to be trusted at all.
    It takes time for the truth to become visible and emphasis on short-term ROI is the last way to find out.

  5. Ruben
    04/10/2011 at 7:48 am Permalink

    One great thing that I felt that is lacking behind these books is the MARKETING and the PUBLICITY these “Great Performers” recieved knowing that there are a lot of people out there, that are way better. The team and the vision they have for themselves and the imagery they sell for others can have an effect on people.

    Also they lack strongly on the TEAM they have caring abour them. This books talks about only about ONE single person with planned practice, although it talks about coorporations, it doesn’t deepened strongly on the fact that these great performers have an entire team behind them.

    If the 10 year rule is strong enough, then at 40 years anyone (that have more than 10 years working on a planned basis) could be a great performer, when we already know it is not true.

    So the book, is great for having a partial view of what great performance means and have scientific approach which is good, but in the reality, not everyone was born is the talent to perform it, not even working extremely hard


  6. Tim
    17/04/2012 at 1:39 pm Permalink

    Wow – I am finding it hard to read the comments left by your readers, as it seems that they want to refute the findings of the book without actually considering the evidence that was laid out so carefully in it. It felt like they were insulted at the conclusions of the book, and therefore had to seek to undermine them.

    I thought that the book was excellent in laying out a consistent, challenging and understandable set of evidence for the development of high performance skills in many areas of expertise. The difficulty that I had in reading the book was recognizing how unlikely it would be that I would be able to undertake the kind of deliberate practice required in any area of my life to become truly great at it. But this isn’t stopping me from doing what I can to distill what I can from it and apply it as far as I can.

    There are too many books out there that make claims without any evidence – this is not one of them. It is worth reading by anyone who wants to understand the mechanics of getting better at stuff – I find it hard to believe that people exist who don’t fit that category in some way.

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