Innovation Hub: Who Needs Talent?

How many articles have been written about the innate business acumen of Steve Jobs, the brilliant coding abilities of Mark Zuckerberg, the extraordinary gifts of Yo Yo Ma?

And what if they were all wrong?

Geoff Colvin has combed through the research, and he argues that, again and again, scholars have almost completely discounted the notion of talent.

Colvin, the author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, believes that talent can’t—and won’t—help you get ahead. I talked to him about why the myth survives—and what you can do to attain excellence.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full interview, go to innovationhub.org]

Kara Miller: Who is a person that demonstrates this idea that talent is overrated?

Geoff Colvin: There are many, many examples. One I like to mention because it’s surprising to many people is Tiger Woods. Most people think: if ever anyone was born to be a great golfer, it has to be him because he’s so utterly dominant. But when you look at the evidence, it really is just the opposite. The reason he is a great golfer is that he had been better prepared than anyone in the history of the game. His father, Earl Woods, put a club in his hands at nine months and taught him golf swings at two years old. Great performance doesn’t come from a natural gift; it comes rather from what the researchers call deliberate practice.

KM: So what’s the difference between deliberate practice and regular practice?

GC: First, the foundational study in this whole field was a study of very good violinists at an academy in Berlin. What the study found was that it was indeed total lifetime hours of accumulated deliberate practice that accounted for the difference in ability between these violinists. Deliberate practice is an activity that is designed specifically for a particular person at a particular moment in their development. This is why teachers, coaches, and mentors are so important. You don’t do the same practice over and over; as you get better, your practice has to change. Second, deliberate practice is constantly pushing you just beyond your current abilities. Third, you get constant feedback. You can’t get better without knowing how well you’re doing.

KM: Does this mean that if you’ve put in 30 or 40 years with a company, you’re probably better than someone who’s much newer at the company?

GC: Well, you may have an advantage in social ways, but there’s actually a lot of research on people who have done work over and over in all kinds of fields. What seems to happen is people go on automatic pilot. They get to be good enough, and then they stop thinking about it. The few people who do become really good are constantly pushing themselves, or finding ways to be pushed just beyond their current abilities. Even in business, the great performers are ones who are trying to stretch themselves.

Danielle Herrera contributed to this write-up.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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  • Bill Ghormley

    I beg to differ — it’s not “deliberate practice” but “designed deliberate practice” that differentiates performance. Yes, “practice” (or simulation) is crucial, as in Gladwell’s 10,000-hour “Outliers” — but also required is a meta level on the design of the practice.
    Earl Woods used to try to distract Tiger during practice to make him more able to cope during “live play” situations with crowds around him. He imposed a method on top of the specific tasks he gave Tiger to learn to perform.
    And, then, there is the ability to execute while disregarding the tapes playing in your head — which seems to be a combination of desire and (wait for it) TALENT. Especially in golf is this true. Try it (;->