Book Summaries

Talent is Overrated and Leadership

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else

Geoff Colvin

Human knowledge of the world is continuously advancing. This means that anyone trying to become a world-class performer must constantly keep up. A common perception is that innate talent and hard work are required to be truly great at something. Colvin argues that even if innate talent exists, it may not be as important as we think. It turns out that anyone can become a great performer in any field by engaging in deliberate practice – a more structured form of working hard that involves targeting one’s weaknesses and receiving feedback from mentors. Accordingly, Colvin concludes that talent is overrated.

Why Talent is Overrated

  • Talent is defined as the natural ability to perform an action or skill better than most. While past research has not disproved the existence of raw talent, this research also suggests that the abilities we are born with may not be as important for our success as we think (p. 22).
  • It is believed that you need to be born with certain abilities to be highly successful, but that is not the case. Those who do not seem to possess these natural abilities perform surprisingly well and can strengthen their abilities over time (p. 47).
  • Research finds that general intelligence is not a strong predictor of success and, sometimes, is not even a relevant factor. There is also evidence that suggests that “memory ability is acquired, and it can be acquired by pretty much anyone.” Other natural abilities do not seem to predict success either. Individuals who appear to be born with above average natural abilities do not always perform better and often lose their abilities over time (p. 48).
  • “We tend to think we are forever barred from all manner of successes because of what we were or were not born with. The range of cases in which that belief is true turns out to be a great deal narrower than most of us think. The roadblocks we face seem to be mostly imaginary” (p. 53).

Deliberate Practice

  • Anders Ericsson, a researcher known for his study of human performance, proposed a new framework for how to become a high-achieving performer without depending on natural abilities. Ericsson and his colleagues asserted that certain people become extremely skilled within their field because they engage in “deliberate practice.” They suggested that “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain” (p. 66).
  • Deliberate practice is an “activity that is designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it pushes the practitioner just beyond, but not way beyond, his or her current limits; 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” (p. 70).
  • Continual deliberate practice allows individuals to become more productive by focusing on improving weaknesses. It also involves seeking out mentors who can provide unbiased performance feedback and examples of high performance for individuals to compare themselves (p. 71).
  • Although deliberate practice can be taxing and force individuals out of their comfort zone, dedicating time and energy to gaining skills and knowledge and collaborating with highly skilled mentors lead to greatness (p. 76).

The Impact of Deliberate Practice

  • “Deliberate practice works by helping us acquire the specific abilities we need to excel in a given field.” Specifically, deliberate practice helps individuals to develop a greater ability to perceive, organize, and remember information related to a specific field, which enables them to become great performers in that field (p. 106).
  • Deliberate practice leads to four significant outcomes:
    • Heightened Perception: Deliberate practice makes people capable of noticing subtle distinctions and recognizing small but significant details that others often miss. Deliberate practice teaches individuals to look beyond surface-level information for important trends, patterns, and causal relationships. They will also be able to gather more knowledge from limited information and make smarter snap decisions (p. 101).
    • Increased Knowledge: Engaging in deliberate practice allows individuals to gain field-specific knowledge. By dedicating time and energy to improving one’s abilities within a certain field, an individual can develop “the critical connections that organize all that knowledge and make it useful.” Learning to consolidate a large amount of knowledge helps great performers approach problems from different perspectives (p. 110).
    • Enhanced Memory: Deliberate practice helps individuals gain a greater ability to remember information related to their specific field. These individuals can access and alter long-term memory in a faster and more reliable way. They learn to relate new information to their existing knowledge in meaningful ways that create an outline for storing and retrieving field-specific knowledge (p. 113).
    • Delay of Cognitive Decline: As we age, we all experience a general decline in cognitive speed and ability. However, research conducted on excellent performers indicates that deliberate practice can delay the decline of the skills used in their specific field of expertise. Deliberate practice allows individuals to prevent some effects of aging and continue performing exceptionally well, even in old age (p. 197).

Other Factors that Lead to High Performance

  • “Deliberate practice does not fully explain achievement – real life is too complicated for that” (p. 87).
  • High performance is directly related to two additional factors:
    • Supportive Environment: Many employees are unwilling to volunteer to participate in challenging work experiences that focus on eliminating their weaknesses. For this reason, leaders need to push their employees to continue developing and to create an encouraging and supportive environment in which this can happen (p. 191).
    • Intrinsic Motivation: Individuals who are driven internally to find solutions to problems within their field and who experience enjoyment along the way are more likely to become high-achieving performers than those who are only motivated by external rewards. However, extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic motivation – such as rewards that give employees freedom to be creative – have also been proven to effectively encourage innovation and improve performance (p. 210).

Applying the Principles of Deliberate Practice to Organizations

  • Employees should be placed in positions that will challenge them and require them to learn and grow. Developing employees from the beginning also creates an opportunity to develop and identify future leaders early. An organization’s “pipelines of achievers become bigger, better, and more reliable” (p. 149).
  • Although developing people requires a great deal of time, money, and energy, this investment in others does not go unnoticed and trickles down throughout the company, creating a company culture that values growth (p. 151).
  • The best leaders are active in their communities. In addition to having the opportunity to practice using their skills outside of the workplace, leaders’ involvement in their communities exhibits to their employees that they are committed to their organization’s values and serves as a source of encouragement and inspiration (p. 147).
  • Leaders should ensure that all employees have mentors who can advise them on which skills will be most useful to them, as well as how best to develop those skills. Past research on the effectiveness of different types of feedback suggests that “when people really understand what happened, they’re eager to try to do it better.” Employees who get immediate feedback on their performance will clearly understand what did and did not work, as well as why, and will seek out more opportunities to practice their skills (p. 148).
  • The best leaders motivate their employees through inspiration rather than authority. They identify or create a sense of mission that brings their employees together and creates intrinsic motivation (p. 210).
  • It is important to apply the principles of deliberate practice when creating teams. The most effective teams are made up of employees who share interests and goals and are committed to being open and honest with one another. Leaders can create these kinds of teams by normalizing the provision of constant, honest feedback and preventing personal agendas from interfering with the goals of the team (p. 156).

Deliberate Practice Leads to Creativity and Innovation

  • It is a misconception that too much practice and knowledge in a particular field hinder creativity and innovation. When finding creative solutions to problems, more knowledge is better (p. 166).
  • The most successful creators have “immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it” (p. 171).
  • Creativity does not “strike” and come to us suddenly in a eureka moment. All novel creations build upon what already exists and what is already known. Without a deep understanding of past achievements and findings in one’s field, it will be difficult to contribute (p. 166).
  • Leaders can promote creativity and innovation by encouraging their employees to engage in deliberate practice, which will deepen their knowledge of their field. However, leaders must clearly communicate what type of innovation is valuable and give their employees freedom to be creative (p. 179).
  • Research also suggests that leaders should avoid offering extrinsic rewards for innovative creations. Individuals who are internally motivated by passion and an interest to create are more likely to be creative (p. 180).
  • As more and more advances are made in every field, it is becoming more difficult and time-consuming to reach the highest level of a field. “In a world of forces that push toward the commoditization of everything, creating something new and different is the only way to survive. A product unlike any other can’t be commoditized. A service that reaches deep into the psyche of the buyer can never be purchased solely on price. Creating such products and services was always valuable; now it is essential” (p. 162).

Colvin, G. (2018). Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Penguin Random House.