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[Review] Talent Is Overrated


With an eye-catching title and an alluring subtitle – “What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” – Fortune editor-at-large Geoff Colvin’s book “Talent Is Overrated” provides excellent food for thought in today’s knowledge economy. Debunking age-old notions that nature matter a lot more than nurture, the book proposes that prodigious amounts of deliberate practice is the key to success in multiple fields.

Citing examples from the worlds of music, sport and business like Mozart, Tiger Woods, and Jack Welch, Colvin’s central thesis is that top performers are not born but made. While genetics may play a role in determining superstardom, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. However, this isn’t just about putting in “10,000 hours” of hard work per se but about deliberate practice, i.e:

1. Doing activities designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher, mentor or coach’s help;

2. Doing activities that can be repeated alot, often ad nauseum and beyond;

3. Receiving feedback on results so that one can sharpen one’s skills and hone one’s craft;

4. Practice that is highly demanding mentally, be it intellectual (chess), business-related (strategy), or physical like sports;

5. Activities that ain’t much fun.

In the book, highly accomplished performers in any field tend to perceive more, know more, and remember more than most average people in their specific areas of specialization and expertise. They understand the significance of indicators that lesser mortals fail to notice, look further ahead, and make finer discriminations. Using mental models developed over time, they can also organize information in an exceptional manner.

To embrace the principles of deliberate and well-structured practice, there are three models to choose from:

1. Music model.

Here, the practice comprises going through a fixed “script” and finding ways and means to deliver well on that specific area of performance. In the business world, it can include speeches and presentations where one rehearses a specific pitch until perfection, often with the help of coaches or videos of oneself performing. One can also adopt the habits of best practices in this field.

2. Chess model.

In a manner reminiscent of war strategy (think Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”), the chess model entails studying positions from real games between top-level players and choosing the best moves. Such an approach has been well-documented in the business world, and it can be used to focus on specific skills that need improvement. Here, case studies and “gaming” would be useful.

3. Sports model.

The final model has two key concepts. The first involve the conditioning and building of strengths in specific areas most useful for a sport (eg hand-eye coordination for baseball), while the other is to work on specific critical skills (e.g. kicking a football). In the business world, such conditioning can be applied to improving on fundamental skills (e.g. financial analysis) through practice and honing of one’s cognitive abilities.

On an organizational level, the principles of deliberate practice can be applied by understanding how each person should be stretched and developed, finding ways to develop leaders within their jobs, encouraging staff to be active in their communities, identifying good performers early, inspiring these talents, and investing time, money and energy in people development. Culture is also key, and here teamwork should be emphasized over prima-donna-ship.

Perhaps the most meaningful and inspirational lesson I learned was that anybody can be a top performer so long as he or she is willing to do what it takes. If you’re willing to apply the principles deliberately and purposefully, you can be better at whatever you’re doing. It is important, however, to have passion for what you do, and while extrinsic motivators may play a role, elite performers are often intrinsically motivated.

As a parent of an eight-year-old, I’m heartened to note that success is a life-long venture that can be groomed. While it is true that certain violin virtuosos started when they were 2 years old, many of the top artistes playing in major symphonies started at a later age. What’s undeniable, however, is that the top performers almost always put in more hours of hard deliberate practice.

To start our kids off on the right footing, parents need to provide the right home environment of focused stimulation, discipline and inculcation without overdoing it. Eventually, this blend of extrinsic factors could hopefully spark off our children’s intrinsic motivation, fuelling the journey towards eventual greatness. Of course, luck or God’s will also has a role to play in that, but I’ll reserve that discussion for another day.