Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin


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Extraordinary work doesn’t come from natural talent or hard work alone. Instead, it is the result of deliberate and persistent practice aimed at achieving specific goals.


20 lessons

Talent is Overrated

– by Geoff Colvin –


1) Greatness is not a gift

We believe that the awesomely great, apparently super-human performers around us came into this world with a gift for doing exactly what they ended up doing. This explanation helps us come to terms with our own performance. We’re wrong in thinking 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.

2) Learning how to become great has never been more important

Individuals now live under unprecedented pressure to develop their own abilities more than was ever necessary before. This is due to the advent of the first large-scale global labor market. For most of human history, the majority of work has been place-based. But today, the rapid increase of information and communication has led many millions of workers in developed economies to compete for jobs with other workers around the world. The result is that a fast-growing number of workers everywhere have to be just as good as the very best workers in their field anywhere on earth.

3) Human ability is scarce, not money

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 is human ability.

4) The talent myth is discouraging

If we believe that people without a particular natural talent for some activity will never be very good at it, or at least will never be competitive with those who possess that talent, then we’ll direct them away from that activity. We’ll tell them they shouldn’t even think about it. We’ll steer our kids away from particular studies, whether they’re art, tennis, economics, or Chinese, because we think we’ve seen signs that they have no talent in those realms. We will try something new in our own lives and, finding that it isn’t easy for us, conclude that we have no talent for it, and so we never pursue it.

5) The link between intelligence and high achievement is weak

The research finds that in many fields the relation between intelligence and performance is weak or non-existent; people with modest IQs sometimes perform outstandingly while people with high IQs sometimes don’t get past mediocrity.

6) Hard work isn’t enough

We tell our kids that if they just work hard, they’ll be fine. It turns out that this is exactly right. They’ll be fine, just like all those other people who work at something for most of their lives and get along perfectly acceptably but never become particularly good at it. The research confirms that merely putting in the years isn’t much help to someone who wants to be a great performer.

7) Engage in deliberate practice

Deliberate practice isn’t work and isn’t play, but is something entirely unto itself. It is characterized by several elements: It is 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, and it isn’t much fun.

8) Move toward discomfort

Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we’re good at, we should insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest. The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won’t do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.

9) We need someone qualified to assess our performance and provide feedback

Without a clear, unbiased view of your performance, choosing the best activity for deliberate practice will be impossible. For reasons that may be deeply psychological, very few of us can make a clear, honest assessment of our own performance. In addition, most of us lack extensive knowledge of the latest and best methods for development in our chosen field.

10) Top performers know more from seeing less

They understand the significance of indicators that average performers don’t even notice. This ability is essential for success in every real-life domain because we never have as much information as we want. Getting information pushes at the two constraints everyone faces: It takes time and costs money. Making sound decisions fast and at low cost is a competitive advantage everywhere. Top performers, through extensive practice, learn this ability for decisions that are most critical in their field.

11) Develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of your field

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. The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it.

12) Improve your memory

In the real world, the great power of long-term working memory – the reason it distinguishes the best performers – is that it’s built on a retrieval structure connected to the very essence of the activity. Top performers’ deep understanding of their field becomes the structure on which they can hang the huge quantities of information they learn about it.

13) Know where you want to go

Because the demands of achieving exceptional performance are so great over so many years, no one has a prayer of meeting them without utter commitment. You’ve got to know what you want to do, not suspect it or be inclined toward it or be thinking about it.

14) Set immediate goals

These goals should not be big or life-directing, but instead more immediate goals for what you’re going to be doing today. In the research, the poorest performers don’t set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome.

15) Practice self-observation

The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition – knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.

16) Develop trust when working in teams

Read the extensive literature on team effectiveness, or talk to people on teams in sports, business, or elsewhere, and it always comes down to this: Trust is the most fundamental element of a winning team. If people think their teammates are lying, withholding information, or plotting against them, nothing valuable will get done. Similarly, team members may not trust one another’s competence. Such teams will struggle to succeed.

17) Innovation is essential

In a world of forces that push toward the commoditization of everything, creating something new and different is the only way to survive. A product unlike any other can’t be commoditized. A service that reaches deep into the psyche of the buyer can never be purchased solely on price. Creating such products and services was always valuable; now it’s essential.

18) Innovation doesn’t strike – it grows

A closer look at notable innovations in business, the arts, and science shows that they do not arise from nothingness; they are not even remotely unprecedented. Innovation doesn’t reject the past; on the contrary, it relies heavily on the past and comes most readily to those who’ve mastered the domain as it exists.

19) Understand the investment you must make to be great

Becoming a great performer demands the largest investment you will ever make – many years of your life devoted utterly to your goal – and only someone who wants to reach that goal with extraordinary power can make it. We often see the price people pay in their rise to the top of any field; even if their marriages or other relationships survive, their interests outside their field typically cannot.

20) Your beliefs shape your limitations

If you believe that your performance is forever limited by your lack of a specific innate gift, or by a lack of general abilities at a level that you think must be necessary, then there’s no chance at all that you will do the work. Those who see the setbacks as evidence that they lack the necessary gift will give up. They will never achieve what they otherwise might have.