Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from EverybodyElse
by Geoff Colvin
Talent is Overrated dispels the myth that some people are born with natural talent for things like playing piano or playing chess. The reality is that years of deliberate practice are required for best-in-the-world performance. Overall, this is a good book and I largely agree with Geoffrey Colvin’s major points.
Colvin does a solid job of justifying his position, explaining deliberate practice, and giving a few examples outside of sports and music. He also makes an interesting point that there is an ever increasing expectation of performance that makes understanding talent critical.
As for opportunities to improve, Colvin spends too much time talking about studies having found no gene for playing piano. Of course they haven’t. There may be a combination of genes impacting fine motor skills, hearing, and timing that allow a person to play piano better, but it doesn’t make sense to discuss a single piano gene or chess gene or a single gene for pretty much any other complex, modern activity.
The other callout is that Colvin argues for the need to develop absolute best-in-the-world talent to be competitive in a global economy and only discusses examples of historically great talent. Then, in the closing chapter, he points out that “oh, by the way, many world class performers are kind of weird and have given up the rest of their life for their achievement.” So we better train ourselves and our kids to be the very best in the world, but we have to sacrifice having a life to do it. I understand why Colvin focuses on the historic examples of the best talent in the world – those are the people that others say must be born with a natural gift and it makes it easier for Colvin to make the case for deliberate practice. That said, most organizations are not interested in developing an entire employee base of absolute best-in-the-world performers and most employees are not interested in sacrificing their lives and, frankly, haven’t been positioned from a young enough age to reach that level. Helping people to understand what it takes to be in the top 10% of global talent might be more realistic and useful.
A final comment is that more work is needed on applying deliberate practice to skills used in the business world. Colvin gives some examples and pushes hard for the use of coaches, but more is needed to turn these ideas into action for most of what most people do at work. Of course, a final comment is that in the dynamic and unstructured “real world” it may be difficult to prove that one person is really better than another – rather than just being lucky – and therefore hard to know how to achieve that. Read “The Drunkard’s Walk” by Leonard Mlodinow for more on that.