Reflections on “Talent is Overrated”

Posted by Doc
Aug 09 2011

I’m in the midst of reading Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin. I’m finding much that resonates for me, especially in light of recent experience.

“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.” [emphasis mine]

Too many organizations believe that all they have to do is give employees a place to work, specific roles to play, and an opportunity to do their work over and over and over again, and those employees should get better at what they do. After all, we’re all motivated and driven and have the capability to figure out what we need to know and do to get better/more skilled, right?

Wrong.

“It could be put very simply: What the authors called ‘deliberate practice’ makes all the difference. Or as they stated it with stark clarity in their scholarly paper, ‘the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.'”

As he explains further, “deliberate practice” is not just doing it over and over again.

“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.”

If I find myself in a situation where someone – someone who is supposedly helping me progress toward mastery – just says “again! again! again!”, then I know we’re not making progress. I was trying out a new gym, for instance. It was a kettlebell gym. During one activity we were swinging a kettlebell up and down, from between our legs up to around shoulder level. The instructor said “Snap Doc! Snap!” Needless to say, I had no idea what she was talking about. She didn’t help me to understand the body mechanics, or even what she meant by “snap”. She just kept snapping “Snap!” at me. Not helpful.

On the other hand, a different instructor said “Use your legs, not your arms and shoulders. Your arms and shoulders are just there to support the bell. Use your upward momentum with your legs to move the bell, and snap into position with your body upright and your butt tight at the top.” That was far more helpful. When this person said “That’s better. Now try for more snap.” I knew what was meant and how to move into deliberate practice.

In a work environment, if you are not being challenged and offered ways to learn, then you might have reason to question the situation. It’s all too easy for employers to discriminate based on talent, where Colvin would argue that talent is real, but is a relatively small influence on how skilled or capable someone is at a particular endeavor. The shift from “let’s find talented people” to “let’s find people who understand the importance of deliberate practice” is as important – and difficult – as the shift that Dan Pink talks about in Drive (intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation). Colvin says:

“…it’s one thing to say that a manager is ‘good with people.’ It’s another to ask whether a manager notices when a direct report seems no longer challenged by his or her job. If so, is that seen as a problem or an opportunity? What responses are proposed? Of these, how effective or ineffective do they seem, and which, if any, are applied?”

Management, along with its close friend Leadership, is a set of skills and a mindset. Sadly, too many organizations treat it as a job that someone can pick up on their own if they just do it day after day. Good management, effective management, requires deliberate practice. It requires mentoring and guidance and – worth saying again – deliberate practice. It really makes me sad to see people who have the potential to be strong, effective managers and/or leaders being led by people who are not strong, effective managers and are therefore being taught the wrong stuff. Sometimes the teaching is in the form of abstention: their “leaders” let them do foolish things, or ineffective things, and don’t help them to learn better, wiser, more effective ways. And this becomes generational, as each “generation” of organizational leaders “raises” the next generation.

If you’re in a situation like this, you have three choices, two of which require you to take action:

  1. Do something about it – change your organization
  2. Shut up and take it – but do it with awareness, not ignorance
  3. Leave – change your circumstances

If you have stories about situations like this, I’d love to hear about them.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” ~Mohandas Gandhi
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4 Responses

  1. aretae says:

    Doc,

    Deliberate practice is again only part of it.

    Learning (according to me) contains 3 issues:

    1. Motivation — how much you want it, for whatever reason — this seems to me to be the dominant factor
    2. Talent — Whatever Colvin says (and I liked his book)…Fast-twitch muscle fiber matters for most sports, IQ matters for most intellectual endeavors, and so do several other innate-ish issues (Conscientiousness, Patience, Self-efficacy). For instance, army research from the ’70s suggests that 1stdv IQ makes a 1.6x learning speed difference.
    3. Practice — This is what Colvin focuses on…and I’m inclined to agree that differences in practice dominate differences in Talent…but when 2 folks are both practicing (roughly) equivalently, something makes the difference in skill. Practice, however, is also comprised of 3 parts…and I don’t remember Colvin addressing that:
    A. Quantity of practice. This is an awful good metric…simply doing something enough times that it stops being a conscious thing, and starts being automatic is useful. An awful lot of martial arts practice explicitly doesn’t (won’t) explain stuff…it just does stuff…and eventually you learn to do.
    B. Targetted practice. Don’t practice hitting a baseball in order to get better at stealing bases. Similarly, there’s usually a finite amount of arithmetic practice that will help with Algebra…and a finite amount of simple hello-world apps that will help with learning code. Practice the right thing.
    C. The issue I personally think of as the massive super-under-discussed topic: Feedback in education. What’s the cycle-time between action and improvement? If you do your kettle bell swing…how long does it take before you do a better kettle-bell swing? Feedback cycle time is (to my mind) the God-metric of practice. Without it…you lose….with it, you mostly win.

  2. [...] Reflections on “Talent is Overrated” (Steven ‘Doc’ List) [...]

  3. Agile Scout says:

    Well said. Sounds to me like differentiation, as Jack Welch would say, is more about hard (focused) work towards mastery of (something)

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