Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Title: Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (audio version)
Author: Geoff Colvin
Read by: David Drummond
Publisher: Tantor Media, 2008

I have a two hour commute each day and usually listen to free podcasts about books or running, but I recently discovered that I can download audio books for free from the library via My Media Mall.  I have a hard time with audio books because the reader’s voice and performance can quickly kill a book for me.  Its all I can do right now to restrain myself from boring you with stories of bad audio books past.  I’m still traumatized by an especially horrific Moby Dick experience.  Suffice it to say now that David Drummond, the reader of Talent is Overrated, is a decent reader.

Geoff Colvin takes on the age-old assumption that people who are the ‘great leaders’ of their field arrive on earth with an inborn talent.  Greatness isn’t destiny or DNA, rather it boils down to decades of intentional practice and sacrifice at the level that most of us are not willing to make.  Colvin writes for Fortune magazine and points out that many people typically think about greatness in sports and music, but not business.  Although we know athletes and musicians are trained and coached, we also make the assumption that they have an inborn talent for their sport or instrument when really, they don’t.

Colvin identifies four factors that contribute to great performance:

  1. Years of intentional practice
  2. Analysis of your results
  3. Learning from your mistakes
  4. Coaching by progressively more advanced teachers

Two examples that Colvin discusses are Mozart and Tiger Woods.  Both men are thought to have an inborn natural talent, but by looking at their histories Colvin identifies many similarities: both men were introduced to music/golf at extremely young ages, both had fathers who were teachers in their respective fields, and both spent years focused on very intentional practice before most of their peers even started to learn music/golf.  By the time Mozart and Tiger Woods were teens, they already had over ten years of intense training and intentional practice and so looked like wizards compared to the other boys and girls their age. 

I’ve read bits of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers, which also came out in 2008, and his idea of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness seems to be in line with Colvin’s findings.  I know this topic of greatness and how to achieve it is as old as the hills, but the big take away from Colvin’s book for me is the idea of intentional practice, of really breaking things down into small bits and practicing that.  For example, when hobbyist golfers practice, they’ll go to the driving range and hit their standard 100-300 balls.  Tiger Woods, on the other hand, goes to a sand pit, places a ball on the sand, steps on it, and then practices getting out of that situation.  He may rarely find himself in that predicament during a tournament, but its those little details that can bring huge rewards.

Colvin wonders about using the Mozart/Woods model to mentor and train future business leaders, which is completely possible.  He points out, however, that it might be hard to handle a leader of a large-scale business who is a teen.  In that context socialization plays a huge role.  We are social creatures and although leadership is found at all ages, it does take significant years of life experience to refine one’s leadership ability in order to lead adults for a sustained period of time. This subject made me think about the myths surround Mozart’s maturity (or lack, thereof) as well as Tiger Wood’s recent interpersonal problems.  It is this psycho-social aspect of greatness that I find fascinating, but it is not Colvin’s focus.

Long story short: if you’re not yet great, go out and find a teacher to challenge your current level of proficiency and then practice, practice, practice–intentionally–for at least ten years.  Oh, and a supportive family would be nice, too.  Good luck, and may The Force be with you!

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