Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.
About a year ago, I reviewed the wonderful book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. That book discussed the nature of outliers – the exceptional people that dominate their fields, like The Beatles or Wayne Gretzky – and looked for things they have in common. One of the biggest conclusions from the book is that such outliers stand out because of obsessive amounts of practice. Gladwell estimated that practice time as being on the order of 10,000 hours.
Interested in this topic, I’ve slowly begun assembling a reading list of books that focus on the nature of talent. What makes people become very good at, say, the piano? Or academic research? Or anything else along those lines? The first book I came across in this search – one that I was referred to time and time again – is this one, Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large for Fortune magazine.
Colvin focuses in on a topic I’ve discussed on The Simple Dollar before: deliberate practice. Colvin’s main argument is that it’s not just practice that gives people talent, it’s deliberate practice in abundance. Let’s dig into his argument in detail.
All of us are at least aware of people that seem to have exceptional abilities in one area or another. Michael Jordan is one example. Bill Gates is another. What exactly gets them to that stage? Often, our initial guess is that they’re essentially born with it, that they have some sort of God-given ability that far exceeds our own. The truth is that it comes with a lot of practice. The reason these people who obsessively practice to the point of truly honing a talent become rich is because people will always pay for exceptional performance, now more than ever.
Talent Is Overrated
If you go back to the starting point, exceptional performers are often impossible to pick out of the group of beginners. Demetrius Walker was considered the greatest fifth grade basketball player in the world several years ago. Today, he’s a marginal Division I basketball player. Michael Jordan, on the other hand, was cut from his eighth grade basketball team. The best musician I’ve ever personally known sounded tone deaf for the first year she practiced with her instrument of choice. What separated these people wasn’t talent. It was practice.
How Smart Do You Have to Be?
High-performing businesspeople tend to have incredible memories and seemingly prodigous intellects. Were these natural talents? Usually, they’re not. For most of them, the key to reaching that level was a lot of hard work. They focused on training their memories to easily retain information and they mastered techniques for synthesizing the information they learned. These techniques, when practiced over and over again, amount to essentially the same type of deliberate practice that exceptional people execute in almost every other avenue of life.
A Better Idea
This chapter focuses on Jerry Rice, perhaps the greatest wide receiver ever to play in the NFL. That must have taken a lot of football playing to get that good, right? Wrong. One of the secrets to Rice’s success is that he played very little football. Almost none of the time he invested in preparing for games involved actually playing football. Instead, his prep work often focused on things that weren’t fun at all – exhausting and repetitive drills, particularly those that focused on his specific weaknesses, and a willingness to work on his own far beyond what others were willing to do.
What Deliberate Practice Is and Isn’t
Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance. It can be repeated a lot. Feedback on results is continually available. It’s highly demanding mentally. It’s not fun. If this sounds painful, you’re right – it is. Remember, though, the people who do this are the people whose talent eventually stands out.
How Deliberate Practice Works
People who engage in deliberate practice eventually find themselves at a point where the specific mechanics of what they’re doing become completely second nature to them. Instead, they can focus much more of their mind on the bigger picture. For example, if someone is not very good at basketball, they may spend a lot of their time during a game thinking about their footwork and their grip on the ball when they possess it. People with exceptional deliberate practice no longer have to worry about this and can instead think about the bigger picture of the game – think of Magic Johnson or Larry Bird knowing perfectly where everyone is on the court, where the ball is about to go, and how to be in position to maximize that. This phenomenon exists in almost every field and it’s the result of deliberate practice.
Applying the Principles in Our Lives
Obviously, most of us can’t invest 10,000 hours to become the top person in our field. However, every little bit of deliberate practice helps in improving our skill set. You can use deliberate practice to improve the fundamentals of whatever it is you do at work, whether it’s memory improvement, typing speed improvement, analytical improvement, or anything else. For example, if you’re in a field that relies heavily on fact retention, time spent at home simply practicing your ability to recall facts after they’re told to you can have an enormous positive impact on your career.
Applying the Principles in Our Organizations
Many of the ideas presented here describe the work environment at companies like Netflix and Google, where much time and attention is given to the individual development and projects of employees. The more you cultivate individuals to excel at the things they do best, the greater your organization on the whole becomes.
Performing Great at Innovation
What about the great innovators? How do they maximize performance? For one, they recognize that innovation is rarely a “eureka!” moment. It’s almost always a slow evolution of ideas. Persistence at those ideas almost always pays off. In other words, they approach new ideas with what’s very akin to deliberate practice. They work slowly at the fundamentals of an idea, poring over what’s known, until new ideas begin to slowly emerge.
Great Performance in Youth and Age
Prodigies are often people who started deliberate practice at an earlier age than we expect it. Most people don’t start deliberate practice on their child at the age of two, but when parents do this, they often produce prodigies. On the flip side, people can often be late bloomers at many fields, simply through deliberate practice. One’s never too old to pick up a paintbrush, for example.
Where Does the Passion Come From?
It takes passion to put the time and effort into deliberate practice. Where does that passion come from? There’s no strict answer to this, but it often comes from surrounding yourself with people that encourage you to excel and discourage complacency.
Is Talent Is Overrated Worth Reading?
This book is simply loaded with thought-provoking insights on the nature of exceptional performance. Even if it’s not what you’re striving for in your own life, Talent Is Overrated can really sharpen your appreciation for what it takes for anyone to excel in a field.
For me, Talent Is Overrated was inspirational. It gave me many ideas about applying deliberate practice in my own life and inspired me to get to work. This one’s highly recommended, folks.
Check out additional reviews and notes of Talent Is Overrated on Amazon.com.
Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work
(Fortune Magazine) -- What makes Tiger Woods great? What made Berkshire Hathaway (Charts) Chairman Warren Buffett the world's premier investor? We think we know: Each was a natural who came into the world with a gift for doing exactly what he ended up doing. As Buffett told Fortune not long ago, he was "wired at birth to allocate capital." It's a one-in-a-million thing. You've got it - or you don't.
Well, folks, it's not so simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that's demanding and painful.
Buffett, for instance, is famed for his discipline and the hours he spends studying financial statements of potential investment targets. The good news is that your lack of a natural gift is irrelevant - talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. You can make yourself into any number of things, and you can even make yourself great.
Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Understand that talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It's an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, "The evidence we have surveyed ... does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts."
To see how the researchers could reach such a conclusion, consider the problem they were trying to solve. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.
The irresistible question - the "fundamental challenge" for researchers in this field, says the most prominent of them, professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University - is, Why? How are certain people able to go on improving? The answers begin with consistent observations about great performers in many fields.
Scientists worldwide have conducted scores of studies since the 1993 publication of a landmark paper by Ericsson and two colleagues, many focusing on sports, music and chess, in which performance is relatively easy to measure and plot over time. But plenty of additional studies have also examined other fields, including business.
No substitute for hard work
The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without work. It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, you'll be great from day one, but it doesn't happen. There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.
Reinforcing that no-free-lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.
What about Bobby Fischer, who became a chess grandmaster at 16? Turns out the rule holds: He'd had nine years of intensive study. And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, "The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average." In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years' experience before hitting their zenith.
So greatness isn't handed to anyone; it requires a lot of hard work. Yet that isn't enough, since many people work hard for decades without approaching greatness or even getting significantly better. What's missing?
Practice makes perfect
The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call "deliberate practice." It's activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.
For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don't get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day - that's deliberate practice.
Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, "Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends."
Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It's the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.
Not all researchers are totally onboard with the myth-of-talent hypothesis, though their objections go to its edges rather than its center. For one thing, there are the intangibles. Two athletes might work equally hard, but what explains the ability of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to perform at a higher level in the last two minutes of a game?
Researchers also note, for example, child prodigies who could speak, read or play music at an unusually early age. But on investigation those cases generally include highly involved parents. And many prodigies do not go on to greatness in their early field, while great performers include many who showed no special early aptitude.
Certainly some important traits are partly inherited, such as physical size and particular measures of intelligence, but those influence what a person doesn't do more than what he does; a five-footer will never be an NFL lineman, and a seven-footer will never be an Olympic gymnast. Even those restrictions are less severe than you'd expect: Ericsson notes, "Some international chess masters have IQs in the 90s." The more research that's done, the more solid the deliberate-practice model becomes.
All this scholarly research is simply evidence for what great performers have been showing us for years. To take a handful of examples: Winston Churchill, one of the 20th century's greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. Vladimir Horowitz supposedly said, "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it." He was certainly a demon practicer, but the same quote has been attributed to world-class musicians like Ignace Paderewski and Luciano Pavarotti.
Many great athletes are legendary for the brutal discipline of their practice routines. In basketball, Michael Jordan practiced intensely beyond the already punishing team practices. (Had Jordan possessed some mammoth natural gift specifically for basketball, it seems unlikely he'd have been cut from his high school team.)
In football, all-time-great receiver Jerry Rice - passed up by 15 teams because they considered him too slow - practiced so hard that other players would get sick trying to keep up.
Tiger Woods is a textbook example of what the research shows. Because his father introduced him to golf at an extremely early age - 18 months - and encouraged him to practice intensively, Woods had racked up at least 15 years of practice by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, at age 18. Also in line with the findings, he has never stopped trying to improve, devoting many hours a day to conditioning and practice, even remaking his swing twice because that's what it took to get even better.
The business side
The evidence, scientific as well as anecdotal, seems overwhelmingly in favor of deliberate practice as the source of great performance. Just one problem: How do you practice business? Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering financial statements - you can practice them all.
Still, they aren't the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information - can you practice those things too? You can, though not in the way you would practice a Chopin etude.
Instead, it's all about how you do what you're already doing - you create the practice in your work, which requires a few critical changes. The first is going at any task with a new goal: Instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it.
Report writing involves finding information, analyzing it and presenting it - each an improvable skill. Chairing a board meeting requires understanding the company's strategy in the deepest way, forming a coherent view of coming market changes and setting a tone for the discussion. Anything that anyone does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill.
Adopting a new mindset
Armed with that mindset, people go at a job in a new way. Research shows they process information more deeply and retain it longer. They want more information on what they're doing and seek other perspectives. They adopt a longer-term point of view. In the activity itself, the mindset persists. You aren't just doing the job, you're explicitly trying to get better at it in the larger sense.
Again, research shows that this difference in mental approach is vital. For example, when amateur singers take a singing lesson, they experience it as fun, a release of tension. But for professional singers, it's the opposite: They increase their concentration and focus on improving their performance during the lesson. Same activity, different mindset.
Feedback is crucial, and getting it should be no problem in business. Yet most people don't seek it; they just wait for it, half hoping it won't come. Without it, as Goldman Sachs leadership-development chief Steve Kerr says, "it's as if you're bowling through a curtain that comes down to knee level. If you don't know how successful you are, two things happen: One, you don't get any better, and two, you stop caring." In some companies, like General Electric, frequent feedback is part of the culture. If you aren't lucky enough to get that, seek it out.
Be the ball
Through the whole process, one of your goals is to build what the researchers call "mental models of your business" - pictures of how the elements fit together and influence one another. The more you work on it, the larger your mental models will become and the better your performance will grow.
Andy Grove could keep a model of a whole world-changing technology industry in his head and adapt Intel (Charts) as needed. Bill Gates, Microsoft's (Charts) founder, had the same knack: He could see at the dawn of the PC that his goal of a computer on every desk was realistic and would create an unimaginably large market. John D. Rockefeller, too, saw ahead when the world-changing new industry was oil. Napoleon was perhaps the greatest ever. He could not only hold all the elements of a vast battle in his mind but, more important, could also respond quickly when they shifted in unexpected ways.
That's a lot to focus on for the benefits of deliberate practice - and worthless without one more requirement: Do it regularly, not sporadically.
For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. That's the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn't be rare. Which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. While experts understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, they understand very little about where that behavior comes from.
The authors of one study conclude, "We still do not know which factors encourage individuals to engage in deliberate practice." Or as University of Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy puts it after 30 years of working with managers, "Some people are much more motivated than others, and that's the existential question I cannot answer - why."
The critical reality is that we are not hostage to some naturally granted level of talent. We can make ourselves what we will. Strangely, that idea is not popular. People hate abandoning the notion that they would coast to fame and riches if they found their talent. But that view is tragically constraining, because when they hit life's inevitable bumps in the road, they conclude that they just aren't gifted and give up.
Maybe we can't expect most people to achieve greatness. It's just too demanding. But the striking, liberating news is that greatness isn't reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.
How one CEO learned to fly. Boeing chief James McNerney has now made his mark at three major companies. How? "Help others get better," he says.Want to learn more Secrets of Greatness? Get the new book