Book Summary: “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin


Title: Talent is Overrated
Author: Geoff Colvin
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Colvin argues that “deliberate practice” is the key to individual achievement.

My Comments

While I believe that Colvin over-generalizes the importance of “deliberate practice” for success from violins and chess to all domains, it clearly does play an important role. It should certainly give one pause about calling someone “talented”, while ignoring the decades of hard work they did to become talented.

Key Take-aways

  • Many years of “deliberate practice” is a key to individual success.
  • Deliberate practice is a specific type of practice that consists of:
    • identifying certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then working intently on them specifically to improve performance
    • often with a teacher’s help
    • feedback on results is continuously available
    • highly demanding mentally
    • isn’t much fun.
  • This type of practice is so mentally challenging that even the best can only do it for 60-90 minutes. Most avoid it completely because it is too challenging.
  • The best have very high levels of domain-specific knowledge.

Important Quotes from Book

“The gifts possessed by the best performers are not at all what we think they are. They are certainly not enough to explain the achievements of such people—and that’s if these gifts exist at all. Some researchers now argue that specifically targeted innate abilities are simply fiction.”

“Going beyond the question of specific innate gifts, even the general abilities that we typically believe characterize the greats are not what we think. In many realms—chess, music, business, medicine—we assume that the outstanding performers must possess staggering intelligence or gigantic memories. Some do, but many do not.”

The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice.

One of the most important questions about greatness surrounds the difficulty of deliberate practice. The chief constraint is mental, regardless of the field—even in sports, where we might think the physical demands are the hardest. Across realms, the required concentration is so intense that it’s exhausting.

A wide range of research shows that the correlations between IQ and achievement aren’t nearly as strong as the data on broad averages would suggest, and in many cases there’s no correlation at all.

What’s surprising is that when it comes to innate, unalterable limits on what healthy adults can achieve, anything beyond those physical constraints is in dispute. Clear evidence that such nonphysical constraints exist has not been found so far.

The violinists were quite certain which activity was most important for making them better: It was practicing by themselves… They all knew it, but they didn’t all do it… The two top groups, the best and better violinists, practiced by themselves about twenty-four hours a week on average. The third group, the good violinists, practiced by themselves only nine hours a week.

Practice is so hard that doing a lot of it requires people to arrange their lives in particular ways. The two top groups of violinists did most of their practicing in the late morning or early afternoon, when they were still fairly fresh. By contrast, violinists in the third group practiced mostly in the late afternoon, when they were more likely to be tired… “Solo practice is unusual among music-related activities in that it’s largely within the individual’s control.

The advantage of practice was cumulative… The results were extraordinarily clear. By age eighteen, the violinists in the first group had accumulated 7,410 hours of lifetime practice on average, versus 5,301 hours for violinists in the second group and 3,420 hours for those in the third group. All the differences were statistically significant.

Another theme that emerged in research on top-level performers: No matter who they were, or what explanation of their performance was being advanced, it always took them many years to become excellent, and if a person achieves elite status only after many years of toil, assigning the principal role in that success to innate gifts becomes problematic, to say the least.

The phenomenon seems nearly universal.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. 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.

By contrast, deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.

… illustrates the point by drawing three concentric circles. He labels the inner circle “comfort zone,” the middle one “learning zone,” and the outer one “panic zone.” Only by choosing activities in the learning zone can one make progress. That’s the location of skills and abilities that are just out of reach.

It can be repeated a lot.

High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real”

Feedback on results is continuously available.

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

When we learn to do anything new—how to drive, for example—we go through three stages. The first stage demands a lot of attention as we try out the controls, learn the rules of driving, and so on. In the second stage we begin to coordinate our knowledge, linking movements together and more fluidly combining our actions with our knowledge of the car, the situation, and the rules. In the third stage we drive the car with barely a thought. It’s automatic. And with that our improvement at driving slows dramatically, eventually stopping completely.

By contrast, great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice—avoiding automaticity. The essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do the things one cannot do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible.

Avoiding automaticity through continual practice is another way of saying that great performers are always getting better. This is why the most devoted can stay at the top of their field for far longer than most people would think.

Eventually researchers from a broad array of fields realized where the secret lay. “The most important ingredient in any expert system is knowledge… Programs that are rich in general inference methods—some of which may even have some of the power of mathematical logic—but poor in domain-specific knowledge can behave expertly on almost no tasks.” Their conclusion: “In the knowledge resides the power.

Many years of intensive deliberate practice actually change the body and the brain.

Top performers can figure out what’s going to happen sooner than average performers by seeing more in badminton, cricket, field hockey, squash, and volleyball.

They understand the significance of indicators that average performers don’t even notice.

They look further ahead.

They know more from seeing less.

They make finer discriminations than average performers.

In chess, researchers have found (using a method I’ll describe a little later) that master-level players possess more chess knowledge than good club-level players by a huge margin, a factor of ten to one hundred. Just as important, top performers in a wide range of fields have better organized and consolidated their knowledge, enabling them to approach problems in fundamentally different and more useful ways.

When Jeff Immelt became GE’s chief in 2001, he launched a study of the best-performing companies worldwide… One key trait the study found was that these companies valued “domain expertise” in managers—extensive knowledge of the company’s field. Immelt has now specified deep domain expertise.

Building and developing knowledge is one of the things that deliberate practice accomplishes. Constantly trying to extend one’s abilities in a field requires amassing additional knowledge and staying at it for years develops the critical connections that organize all that knowledge and make it useful.

Extensive, well-structured, deliberate practice develops the specific abilities of great performers to perceive more, know more, and remember more, and how these abilities are critical to exceptional performance. But these aren’t the only ways in which practice works. It exerts an additional, overarching influence that in a way is even more impressive: It can actually alter the physical nature of a person’s brain and body.

What we’ve seen is that in a sense our natural reaction is right—great performers really are fundamentally different…  But we’re wrong in thinking, as many do, that the exceptional nature of great performers is some kind of eternal mystery or preordained outcome. It is, rather, the result of a process, the general elements of which are clear.

The specific nature of the supporting environment is obviously crucial, and a number of researchers have identified the most important characteristics…  their homes tended to be child-oriented. Kids were important, and the parents were willing to do a lot—almost anything—to help them. The parents also believed in and modeled a strong work ethic. Work came before play, obligations had to be met, goals were to be pursued. In one of the most cited conclusions from Bloom’s report, he found that “To excel, to do one’s best, to work hard, and to spend one’s time constructively were emphasized over and over again… The parents of these high achievers gave them strong guidance on the general choice of a field, but chance played a large role in the specific choice.

“The parents did choose teachers, which was one of their most important roles as their children progressed and needed to be challenged at higher levels. The child’s initial teacher was almost always someone who happened to be convenient—a local coach, teacher, or relative. But invariably these kids progressed to a level where they needed a better teacher, and these next teachers were frequently not convenient; parents had to devote lots of time and energy to finding the right teacher and then driving the child to and from lessons. Ultimately these young achievers moved on to some form of master-level teacher, a step that demands major sacrifices of time, money, and energy by both parents and students.”

In addition to choosing appropriate new teachers, the parents in the research project monitored their children’s practice, made sure there was time for it, and made sure they did it.

The fundamental reason why there are no teenage prodigies in certain domains is that it’s impossible to accumulate enough development time by the teenage years.

Excellent performers suffer the same age-related declines in speed and general cognitive abilities as everyone else—except in their field of expertise.

The consistent finding reported by many researchers examining many domains is that high creative achievement and intrinsic motivation go together. Creative people are focused on the task (How can I solve this problem?) and not on themselves (What will solving this problem do for me).

The multiplier effect… A very small advantage in some field can spark a series of events that produce far larger advantages… Each increase in competence is matched to a better environment, and, in turn, the better environment will be expected to further enhance their competence. Most significant, we’ve seen that the passion develops, rather than emerging suddenly and fully formed. We’ve also seen hints that childhood may be especially important in how the drive’s development gets started.

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