TALENT IS OVERRATED by Geoff Colvin — a Review

When looking at the greats in a field, particularly artistic and athletic fields, people tend to focus on the prodigies. Mozart was composing as a child. Tiger Woods was golfing as a toddler. People tend to assume they had some unnatural talent or passion that led them to greatness. In TALENT IS OVERRATED, Geoff Colvin shows why these stories are just myths. It’s practice not passion, testing not talent, that makes someone great.

I first heard of TALENT IS OVERRATED in SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU by Cal Newport (reviewed here). Newport suggests reading TALENT IS OVERRATED for a discussion of deliberate practice.

Geoff Colvin summarizes a lot of studies to show that the best in a field aren’t necessarily the smartest; they don’t have the best memories; and their abilities weren’t innate. Instead, people become the best because they worked to be so–but in a very particular way: deliberate practice.

So what is deliberate practice? Geoff Colvin writes that it’s a very specific form of practice that 1) is designed specifically to improve performance, 2) it can be repeated a lot, 3) feedback on results is continuously available, 4) it is highly demanding, and 5) it isn’t much fun.

Geoff Colvin goes on to describe how businesses can apply the concept of deliberate practice towards creating future industry leaders. Geoff Colvin also shows the benefits of using deliberate practice to extend the longevity of your career beyond that of your peers.

It’s an intriguing idea. Deliberate practice sounds dreadful, so, naturally, few people actually use it. Therefore, the few that do will jump ahead of their peers. But Geoff Colvin doesn’t really explain in a satisfying way what drives people to pursue deliberate practice over the course of years (it will likely take over ten years to become great, he says, by the way). And although he relies heavily on “Making of an Expert” by K. Anders Ericsson and others (Harvard Business Review, July 2007) he doesn’t explore as deeply Ericsson’s other requirements for becoming an expert: world class coaching and a supportive family.

Therefore, while not as complete a discussion of the topic as I would have liked, on balance, this is a good book, full of useful advice. In particular, as a writer, I enjoyed his comments on Ben Franklin’s deliberate practice as a young writer, and I will start using some of his techniques myself. Check back in ten years for a status update. In the meantime, start reading this. Then (deliberate) practice, (deliberate) practice, (deliberate) practice.

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