Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else Kindle Edition
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Great performance is more valuable than ever- but where does it really come from?
It is mid-1978, and we are inside the giant Procter & Gamble head- quarters in Cincinnati, looking into a cubicle shared by a pair of twenty-two-year-old men, fresh out of college. Their assignment is to help sell Duncan Hines brownie mix, but they spend a lot of their time just rewriting memos according to strict company rules. They are clearly smart: One has just graduated from Harvard, the other from Dartmouth. But that doesn't distinguish them from a slew of other new hires at P&G. What does distinguish them from many of the young go-getters the company takes on each year is that neither man is particularly filled with ambition. Neither has any kind of career plan or any specific career goals. Every afternoon they play waste-bin basketball with wadded-up memos. One of them later recalls, "We were voted the two guys probably least likely to succeed."
These two young men are of interest to us now for only one reason: They are Jeffrey Immelt and Steven Ballmer, who before age fifty would become CEOs of the world's two most valuable corporations, General Electric and Microsoft. Contrary to what any reasonable person would have expected when they were new recruits, they reached the absolute apex of corporate achievement. The obvious question is how.
Was it talent? If so, it was a strange kind of talent that hadn't revealed itself in the first twenty-two years of their lives. Was it brains? These two were sharp but had shown no evidence of being sharper than thousands of their classmates or colleagues. Was it mountains of hard work? Certainly not up to that point.
And yet something carried them to the heights of the business world. Which leads to perhaps the most puzzling question, one that applies not just to Immelt and Ballmer but also to everyone in our lives and to ourselves: If that certain something turns out not to be any of the things we usually think of, then what is it?
Look around you.
Look at your friends, your relatives, your coworkers, the people you meet when you shop or go to a party. How do they spend their days? Most of them work. They all do many other things as well, playing sports, performing music, pursuing hobbies, doing public service. Now ask yourself honestly: How well do they do what they do?
The most likely answer is that they do it fine. They do it well enough to keep doing it. At work they don't get fired and probably get promoted a number of times. They play sports or pursue their other interests well enough to enjoy them. But the odds are that few if any of the people around you are truly great at what they do-awesomely, amazingly, world-class excellent.
Why-exactly why-aren't they? Why don't they manage businesses like Jack Welch or Andy Grove did, or play golf like Tiger Woods did, or play the violin like Jascha Heifetz did? After all, most of them are good, conscientious people, and they probably work diligently. Some of them have been at it for a very long time-twenty, thirty, forty years. Why isn't that enough to make them great performers? It clearly isn't. The hard truth is that virtually none of them has achieved greatness or come even close, and only a tiny few ever will.
This is a mystery so commonplace that we scarcely notice it, yet it's critically important to the success or failure of our organizations, the causes we believe in, and our own lives. In some cases we can give plausible explanations, saying that we're less than terrific at hobbies and games because we don't take them all that seriously. But what about our work? We prepare for it through years of education and devote most of our waking hours to it. Most of us would be embarrassed to add up the total hours we've spent on our jobs and then compare that number with the hours we've given to other priorities that we claim are more important, like our families; the figures would show that work is our real priority. Yet after all those hours and all those years, most people are just okay at what they do.
In fact the reality is more puzzling than that. Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don't even get any better than they were when they started. Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud-a fairly important skill for an auditor-than were freshly trained rookies. When it comes to judging personality disorders, which is one of the things we count on clinical psychologists to do, length of clinical experience told nothing about skill-"the correlations," concluded some of the leading researchers, "are roughly zero." Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills-stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants-people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.
The most recent studies of business managers confirm these results. Researchers from the INSEAD business school in France and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School call the phenomenon "the experience trap." Their key finding: While companies typically value experienced managers, rigorous study shows that, on average, "managers with experience did not produce high-caliber outcomes."
Bizarre as this seems, in at least a few fields it gets one degree odder. Occasionally people actually get worse with experience. More experienced doctors reliably score lower on tests of medical knowledge than do less experienced doctors; general physicians also become less skilled over time at diagnosing heart sounds and X-rays. Auditors become less skilled at certain types of evaluations.
What is especially troubling about these findings is the way they deepen, rather than solve, the mystery of great performance. When asked to explain why a few people are so excellent at what they do, most of us have two answers, and the first one is hard work. People get extremely good at something because they work hard at it. 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.
So our instinctive first answer to the question of exceptional performance does not hold up.
Our second answer is the opposite of the first, but that doesn't stop us from believing it fervently. It goes back at least twenty-six hundred years, to the time of Homer:
Call in the inspired bard Demodocus.
God has given the man the gift of song.
That's from the Odyssey, one of many references in it and the Iliad to the god-given gifts of various characters. We've changed our views on a lot of important matters since then-how the planets move, where diseases come from-but we have not changed our views on what makes some people extraordinarily good at what they do. We still think what Homer thought: 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-in the case of Demodocus, composing and singing. We use the same words that the ancient Greeks used, simply translated. We still say, as Homer did, that great performers are inspired, meaning that their greatness was breathed into them by gods or muses. We still say they have a gift, which is to say their greatness was given to them, for reasons no one can explain, by someone or something apart from themselves.
We believe further that such people had the great good fortune to discover their gift, usually early in life. While this explanation of great performance obviously contradicts the just-work-hard explanation, it's much more deeply rooted and in some ways is more satisfying. It explains why great performers seem to do effortlessly certain things that most of us can't imagine doing at all, whether it's forming a strategy for a multibillion-dollar company or playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or hitting a golf ball 330 yards. The natural-gift explanation also explains why extraordinary performers are so rare; god-given talents are presumably not handed out willy-nilly.
This explanation has the additional advantage of helping most of us come to somewhat melancholy terms with our own performance. A god-given gift is a one-in-a-million thing. You have it or you don't. If you don't-and of course most of us don't-then it follows that you should just forget now about ever coming close to greatness.
Thus it's clear why most of us don't dwell on the mystery of great performance. We don't think it's a mystery. We've got a couple of explanations in our head, and if it ever occurs to us that the first one is clearly wrong, well, the second one is what we really believe anyway. And the nicest thing about the second explanation is that it takes the matter of great performance out of our hands. If we were really a natural at anything, we'd know it by now. Since we're not, we can worry about other things.
The trouble with this explanation-except it isn't trouble, it's excellent news-is that it's wrong. Great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected.
New Findings on Great Performance
It turns out that our knowledge of great performance, like our knowledge of everything else, has actually advanced quite a bit in the past couple of millennia. Scientists began turning their attention to it in a big way about 150 years ago, but what's most important is the growing mountain of research that has accumulated in just the past forty years. When this book was first published, that research was little known outside of a small group of academics; most people's beliefs about great performance were the same as Homer's. The findings were strikingly clear and obviously important. They just hadn't made their way into people's heads.
Interest in the reality of great performance has since exploded. This surge in interest has triggered an avalanche of books and articles-some of them accurate and helpful, others quite misleading-prompting a secondary avalanche of new research. On the whole, these newer studies have overwhelmingly supported the key findings of the foundational research. A few studies have sought to disprove the big-picture thesis of the work (and of this book). About the best that can be said for such studies is that they succeeded in attracting media attention, which in some cases seemed to be their primary purpose. But a close look shows that these studies mostly "debunk" claims that the foundational research never made, or that their data do not support the conclusions the authors draw, as we shall see.
More important, the debate has moved beyond the scientific journals and into the real world, where there really is no debate. The new findings about great performance are revolutionizing the way people everywhere learn new skills. People and organizations worldwide have used the principles described in this book to get better at all manner of pursuits: playing video games, drawing pictures, drawing a handgun (from its holster), trading stocks, inserting a needle into a patient's vein, writing software, writing a story, selling anything, learning American Sign Language, teaching math, taking photographs, performing psychotherapy, playing countless sports and musical instruments, and much else. In many cases the performance improvements are dramatically greater than any advances previously achieved. Ordinary people are discovering for themselves that the researchers' findings are powerfully valid. Conducted by scientists around the world, who have looked into top-level performance in a wide array of fields, including management, chess, swimming, surgery, jet piloting, violin playing, sales, novel writing, and many others, these hundreds of research studies have converged on some major conclusions that directly contradict most of what we all think we know about great performance. Specifically:
¥ 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. That is, you are not a natural-born clarinet virtuoso or car salesman or bond trader or brain surgeon-because no one is. Not all researchers are prepared to accept that view, but the talent advocates have a surprisingly difficult time demonstrating that even those natural gifts they believe they can substantiate are particularly important in attaining great performance.
¥ 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. For example, some people have become international chess masters though they possess below-average IQs. So whatever it is that makes these people special, it doesn't depend on superhuman general abilities. On that score, a great many of them are amazingly average.
¥ The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice. Exactly what that is and isn't turns out to be extremely important. It definitely isn't what most of us do on the job every day, which begins to explain the great mystery of the workplace-why we're surrounded by so many people who have worked hard for decades but have never approached greatness. Deliberate practice is also not what most of us do when we think we're practicing golf or the oboe or any of our other interests. Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.
While there's a lot to be said about deliberate practice, a few initial observations are key:
¥ Deliberate practice is a large concept, and to say that it explains everything would be simplistic and reductive. Critical questions immediately present themselves: What exactly needs to be practiced? Precisely how? Which specific skills or other assets must be acquired? The research has revealed answers that generalize quite well across a wide range of fields. It certainly seems daunting to seek a common explanation for greatness in both ballet and medical diagnosis, for example, or insurance sales and baseball, but a few key factors do seem to account for top performance in those realms and many more. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
"Talent Is Overrated is a profoundly important book. With clarity and precision, Geoff Colvin exposes one of the fundamental misconceptions of modern life-that our ability to excel depends on innate qualities. Then, drawing on an array of compelling stories and stacks of research, he reveals the true path to high performance-deliberate practice fueled by intrinsic motivation. This is the rare business book that will both prompt you to think and inspire you to act."-Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- Publication date : January 11, 2011
- File size : 510 KB
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 252 pages
- Publisher : Nicholas Brealey Publishing (January 11, 2011)
- ASIN : B01HPVHLT4
- Language: : English
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #774,947 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Let's face it that dedicated hard work will produce top results. I agree with that. However, if you take two people, one with a natural aptitude towards something, and another without that aptitude, if both people put in the same exact dedicated hard work, the one with the natural aptitude will always do better. It's just a fact.
So my bottom line review of the book is that it will make you think, and realize that dedicated hard work is what all people do who excel in a particular endeavor. However, it's not fair or accurate to say that we can all be great at anything other than the obvious would preclude us from (a 6'10" person trying to be a gymnast, or a 4'10" person trying to be in the NBA). I think a better title for the book would be "Talent Will Only Get You So Far".
Yet, with that said, it is a book worth reading, as it will make you realize that people who are good at something are good because they have paid dues beyond what the average person is inclined to do.
And something called "deliberate practice" may be more significant. Deliberate practice isn't mindless repetition. It's hard. It hurts. And the more you do it, the closer you move to greatness.
Where Did The Idea of Innate Talent Originate?
Colvin traces it to Francis Galton, 19th century English aristocrat and college dropout. Galton and his peers believed that people came into the world with pretty much the same capabilities, which they developed (or not) throughout their lives. This concept arose from the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution -- liberté, égalité, fraternité and all that.
Then Galton's cousin Charles Darwin published On The Origin Of Species. It inspired Galton to change his tune and write a book called Hereditary Genius, which influenced the next several generations.
Does Talent Even Exist?
Scientists haven't yet discovered what all our 20,000-plus genes do. They've yet to identify specific genes that govern particular talents.
What About Mozart?
Mozart wrote music at age 5, gave public performances at age 8, and composed some of the world's most beautiful symphonies before his death at age 35. Yet a close look at Mozart's background reveals:
His father, Leopold, was an expert music teacher who published a violin textbook the year Mozart was born.
Leopold systematically instructed Mozart from at least age 3 (probably sooner).
Mozart's first four piano concertos, composed at age 11, contained no original music. He cobbled them together from other composers' works.
Mozart composed his first original masterpiece, the Piano Concerto No. 9, at age 21. That's a remarkable achievement, but by then he'd gone through eighteen years of intense, expert training.
Colvin concludes that years of deliberate practice can actually change the body and the brain, which is why world-class performers are different from the rest of us. But they didn't start that way, which is great news for late bloomers like me! It's never too late to follow a passion, especially if "world-class" is not your goal. This book is accessible and tightly written. I highly recommend it if the subject even vaguely interests you.
Top reviews from other countries
Talent is overrated gives dozens of examples of great performance based on deliberate practice, gives referenced notes of every paper or research named in the book and takes the time to argue why some ways of training work better than others.
The author gives some advice on how to use this on companies and teams, how to avoid what most organizations do to destroy any chance of great performance and deliberate practice. This part is very interesting if you are starting a business or planning to do so.
I am sorry for those who claim, after reading it, that talent is necessary to achieve greatness, because they just won't have any of it. In fact, I could place a bet here: you, the naysayers, go and ask any great performer, go and ask any great sportsman, any business "prodigy", any "talented" musician or scientist. Tell them that they are the best in their fields because they had a "gift", tell them that they didn't work HARDER AND BETTER (which is more hours but also, and more importantly, well planned time and objectives) than anybody else. They will laugh at the idea.
Michellangelo Buonarroti, arguably the greatest artist of all time, said: "If they knew how much work it takes, they wouldn't call it genius". But, you know, he also said (or they say he said) something that made him unable to believe in such as thing as "Talent", he said "criticize by creating". So I will try to help instead of arguing on the internet, which I found is not the best way for deliberate practice:
I recommend this book for those trying to excel in any field, and would recommend this other books in particular, as they helped me a lot:
Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning For those trying to be something at sports. This book gives good advice, but not easy to follow tips. This is deliberate practice.
E-myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It This is a classic most of you already know, read it if you are trying to run a successful business.
Eat That Frog!: Get More of the Important Things Done, Today! Very short and easy to read, but worth every single word. A deliberate practice manual. Recommended for everyone.
Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character as Told to Ralph Leighton Feynman was a genius, or so called. He surely was one of the greatest minds of the last century, but you will learn (and have lots of fun on the way) that he was trained, raised from his early years, to be a curious mind, to be eager to learn WHY everything happened. This book is also a very important read if you are looking for deliberate practice, other books teach you what to do, this one tells you to have fun with it.
Some of the chapters are mildly interesting but only a few concepts, that Colvin briefly touches upon, really appealed to me:
- The concept of metacognition
- The Whiz Kids that Ford brought in after World War II to drastically increase their performance
- The dream team that Herb Brooks put together for the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980
- The conclusion that legendary top executive teams are nearly always pairs, who developed deep trust over many years and produced outstanding results.
All in all this doesn't live up to its promise but has its thought provoking moments.
This book is a great corrective to views such as "it's all in the genes" or "he came from the right sort of house" or "people round here just can't do that." You cannot completely deny the power of genes and environment, but this book shows how how can make great use of both, to further your performance level at a certain task.
This book shows why truly great performance is rare- the combination of opportunity and willingness to stick to disciplined practice for long enough is actually rare. But it is also optimistic in that it shows how most of us could raise our performance level when we have a need and reason to do so.
An enjoyable book, with a useful message, and easy to read. I can recommend it to those readers who are interested in understanding and improving either their own or their colleague's performance.