Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin is a fascinating book that uses extensive scientific research to address the central question of the title, “What really separates world-class performers from everybody else?” Colvin has isolated factors that excellent performers in a variety of fields have in common, quite apart from their talent, that seem to show that great performance is possible for almost anyone who practices deliberately. Colvin notes, “Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.” He goes on to write that “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 that it’s exhausting.” The reward of true greatness is reserved for those who are willing to suffer through deliberate practice.
So, what exactly is deliberate practice? Here are his thoughts:
• It is designed specifically to improve performance
The key word is designed. Great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved, then it’s on to the next aspect. Choosing these aspects of performance is itself an important skill. Identifying the learning zone, which is not simple, and then forcing oneself to stay continually in it as it changes, which is even harder—these are the first and most important characteristics of deliberate practice.
• It can be repeated a lot
High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. The other is the amount of repetition. Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.
• Feedback on results is continuously available
Practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level. You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: you won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring. There is a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers to improve.
• It’s highly demanding mentally
Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. 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. Violinist Leopold Auer said, “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in one and a half hours.”
• It isn’t much fun
Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. If it seems a bit depressing that the most important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: It must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest. The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won’t do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.
Colvin presents quite a few examples from performance research to support his central idea, particularly examining top athletes and musicians. To become like these super performers, you must look ahead and plan carefully, observe yourself closely, and then evaluate the results. Before beginning, know exactly what you want to do and identify the immediate next steps; set specific long, medium, and short-term goals; then make specific and technical plans for achieving each goal. In his research, the poorest performers do not set goals at all. Setting goals in this way is difficult and demands a great deal of self-motivation.
Self-observation is critical during the actual work of practicing. Colvin notes, “The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition…Top performers do this much more systematically than others do.”
Finally, when the work is done, self-evaluate. The more specific the evaluation, the more likely we are to progress. The best performers take responsibility for their mistakes, focusing on their own performance. When mistakes are made, the top performers adapt while the average performers avoid those situations in the future.