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.