Talent is Overrated

by Geoff Colvin, Penguin Group, New York 2008

One of the most popular Fortune articles in many years was a cover story called “What It Takes to Be Great.” Geoff Colvin offered new evidence that top performers in any field–from Tiger Woods and Winston Churchill to Warren Buffett and Jack Welch–are not determined by their inborn talents. Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades.

And not just plain old hard work, like your grandmother might have advocated, but a very specific kind of work. The key is how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness.


The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice…Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

One of the most important questions about greatness surrounds the difficulty of deliberate practice. The chief constraint is mental, regardless of the field- even in sports, where we might think the physical demands are the hardest. Across realms, the required concentration is so intense it’s exhausting.

At least in the early going, therefore, and sometimes long after, it’s almost always necessary for a teacher to design the activity best suited to improve an individual’s performance…But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.

One of those reasons goes beyond the teacher’s knowledge. It’s his or her ability to see you in ways that you cannot see yourself. In sports the observation is literal.

Choosing these aspects of performance is itself an important skill. Noel Tichy…illustrates this point by drawing three concentric circles. He labels the inner circle “comfort zone,’ the middle one “learning zone,’ and the outer one “panic zone.” Only by choosing activities in the learning zone can one make progress. That’s the location of skills and abilities that are just out of reach. We can never make progress in the comfort zone because those are the activities we can already do easily, while panic-zone activities are so hard that we don’t even know how to approach them.

The work is so great that it seems on one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

Specifically, we can abstract from the research a few ways…that top performers perceive more:

  • They understand the significance of indicators that average performers don’t even notice.
  • They look further ahead.
  • They know more from seeing less.
  • They make finer discriminations than average performers.

If you were pushing yourself appropriately and have evaluated yourself rigorously, then you will have identified errors you made. A critical part of self-evaluation is deciding what caused the errors. Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control…Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors.

A study of figure skaters found that sub-elite skaters spent lots of time working on the jumps they could already do, while skaters at the highest levels spent more time on the jumps they couldn’t do, the kind that ultimately win Olympic medals and that involve lots of falling down before they’re mastered.

World-class achievers are driven to improve, but most of them didn’t start out that way. We’ve already seen that in domains where it’s possible to start work at an early age, such as music and sports, most future great performers need to be pushed at first.

One way to get a very good shot at performing better than others of the same age is to start training earlier than they do, thus accumulating more deliberate practice. Standing out at any given age is an excellent way to attract attention and praise, fueling the multiplier effect, and it can be done without relying on any innate ability. It’s worth noting that studies of swimmers, gymnasts, chess players, violinists, and pianists show that the more accomplished performers started training at earlier ages.

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