Talent Is Overrated, Deliberate Practice, & Tiger Moms [Book Review]

If you’re looking for a inspirational book to read for the new year, consider this one, but read on to see if you like what you’ll learn. :) In Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin explores what makes world-class performers different from everyone else.

What is the key to great achievement?

  • Hard work?, or
  • Innate talent?

Talent vs. Practice

One area where we often give the credit to talent to is musicians. Look at the “kid genius” Mozart, who famously composed his first piece at age 5. Well, Mozart started learning music at age 3 from a pushy composer father who loved to teach (and likely helped write many of his early works). He had been working at music for over 10 years by the time he wrote anything that was widely acknowledged to be of special quality.

In a separate study comparing music students enrolled in elite music schools with those in regular public schools, it was found that the average number of practice hours need to reach the same level of skill was the same for all students. Sure, the students in the elite group were often practicing 2 hours a day vs. only 15 minutes a day for the other kids. But no matter how you clocked those hours, quickly or slowly, nobody got there without putting in the same amount of hours.

Next, let’s look at sports and Tiger Woods. Woods was a prodigy, but he was also an only child to a army-trained teacher/father who started him playing golf at a mere 7 months old. He was playing and practicing on a real golf course by the age of two, and throughout his career was known for his intense practice habits.

The fact is, that almost every study that has looked for evidence of the sort of genetic edge that we call “talent”, has failed to find it. Instead, they find that without exception, every single top achiever has put in thousands upon thousands of hours of practice into their field. In addition, the amount of skill is almost directly proportional to the amount of hours put into it. Terms like the “10,000 hour rule” (as noted in the book Outliers) or the similar “10-year rule” have been created to describe how long it takes before true mastery is achieved.

Deliberate Practice

But wait, lots of people do the same thing, every day, for years. Why aren’t they all awesome? Researchers have also found that “practice” is too vague of a word. Instead, what creates excellence has been termed “deliberate practice”. Deliberate practice is not just hitting through a bucket of golf balls every day.

Deliberate practice is focused attention, working specifically on those aspects that need improvement. It often involves expert feedback from skilled teachers. Instead of repeating what you can already do, you are pushing beyond what is comfortable. You’re working on your weaknesses, even if it means temporary suboptimal performance. Deliberate practice is inherently difficult, often painful, and rarely fun.

Now imagine doing this for a few hours every day, years on end. (It’s actually nearly impossible to do this for more than a few hours a day. Your body and mind need time to recover.) Tiger Woods is better than you not because of talent, but because he practices better and harder than you.

Applications to Parenting

Since deliberate practice is so hard, a better observation might be that discipline and self-motivation is what is really being underrated. Where does this passion and drive to go through so much practice come from? The answers here are not as clear, but for many people it has at least partly to do with your upbringing.

After studying top performers and their families, educational researcher Bloom concluded in such families that “To excel, to do one’s best, to work hard, and to spend one’s time constructively were emphasized over and over again.” He found that the commonalities weren’t the parent’s income, education level, or profession. Instead, important factors were that the parents were child-oriented, promoted the fact that work came before play, and encouraged the pursuit of goals.

A recent hot topic has been “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and her book on Chinese parenting. (See also Chua’s follow-up response this Jeff Yang interview.)

Does such stereotypical Asian parenting really lead to high-achieving kids? I say we look past the no-play-dates and name-calling. Perhaps good parenting is teaching kids the lessons from this book – that there is a strong connection between hard work and achievement. A kid needs to learn not to give up because he/she thinks they aren’t talented enough, but that if they really want something and work on it, they will get better. Sometimes that requires some pushing and discipline (and crying and pouting), as well as subsequent praise. Nobody said parenting was easy.

The book ends with a good observation. The price of high achievement is very high, but at the same time it is available to you and everyone who is willing to pay it. So, the question now becomes – Do you still want it?

Comments

  1. Sounds a little like that Freakonomics book. Although, you have to figure most major athletes are practicing about the same amount with full-time coaches and some players are still just plain better than others. Same with musicians. I just don’t buy it. I believe there is a lot to be said for practice but I still believe that certain people have an inherent talent for things that does not just come from practice.

  2. With athletes in certain sports those at the top may indeed devote the hours but I remember reading that max VO2 (Oxygen) uptake is highest in the best athletes. So for some top athletes it is genetic.

  3. Excellent article. The “deliberate practice” seems so obvious, but I ask myself where else have I plateau’d when I’m trying to accomplish anything in life, and I can see it everywhere at this point (my job, my side projects, my workouts, etc).

  4. it is an very interesting perspective I would love to ask Earl Boykins (the shortest NBA player at 5-5) his thoughts on the book.

  5. Sounds a lot like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, have you read it? Basically, you need thousands of hours of practice and the right opportunities to become great.

  6. @J – Talent still matters, it’s just really overrated. If you turn on the TV and see an athlete, they worked an enormous amount of hours to get there. And that’s the major difference between them and one of us. To be the #1 in the entire world, well that’s a difference story but practice still matters.

    @Jason – Along those lines, Jerry Rice is also mentioned in the book. He was undersized, and not all that fast relative to others, yet became the best wide receiver in history.

    @Jenna – Yep, linked to the review in my post. :)

  7. Achievement is incredibly over-rated.

    Our culture has turned us into achievement-monkeys on a machine pushing and pushing harder because it furthers the needs of our society, not necessarily because this push is what’s best for you.

    We end up with a society of outwardly accomplished people with no sparkle or joy in our eyes.

    Your number of healthy years is limited. Take back true control over your years by stepping off the achievement treadmill created by others.

    Enjoy your life. Lay on the grass with a child and find animals in the clouds. Decide for yourself if you genuinely love something and what level of mastery best serves you.

    We’ve been brainwashed by our society to think achievement is so important. Who care’s what your ranking is? Listen to your heart and find what is truly important to your spirit.

    If going for a level achievement feels great, right and healthy, then go for it. Just be clear whether this drive is coming from within or outside of you.

    You are an inspiring person if you boldly choose mediocrity because you happened to discover that this particular level of achievement for you makes you beam with joy, health and happiness.

    Besides it’s only a few years until the Chinese rule the world. We will be soon be freed of needing all the trappings of being the top dog and will no longer need the old US push-push achievement culture of rugged individualism. The Chinese will do us a great favor – We will be free to just take care of each other and play in our own backyard without the exhausting push that we need to excell at everything all the time.

  8. I think people tend to forget about the thousands of hours athletes and musicians put into their trade… but talent still matters. A lot. Mozart’s sister started learning piano from the same obsessive father, and guess what? She sucked. Mozart started playing piano when he was three when he heard his older sister playing a piece, and he sat down at the piano and played it from memory… the first time he touched a keyboard. He composed pieces in his head, and then played them in their entirety without ever writing a note down on paper. He was a genius. Practice honed his genius, but the same amount of practice without the inate genius, and you’d be saying “who the hell is mozart?”

    With athletes, I need only say the name Randy Moss. He practiced… but not much, not well, not hard, and he still kicked everyone’s ass.

    Sometimes talent is underrated.

  9. It is obvious that hard-work is required for achievement. That’s nothing new. But I don’t believe it’s available to everyone even if they are willing to pay the price. With hard work, you can turn poor into good, but greatness requires innate talent. I believe you need innate talent to turn good into great.

  10. I played saxophone for eight years. Often several hours a day. I never became more that mediocre. On the other hand I was the best sprinter in my HS. That I practiced very little.

    I don’t want to knock hard work. It is invaluable, but believe me natural talent is very real.

  11. @Jonathan – Wow? Did you just add that in or did I completely miss a paragraph?

  12. @Jenna – It was in the original post, but it’s a long post so I understand. :)

  13. I agree with Marie above.
    I think fun/enjoying life is so under-rated.
    Mozart is not Mozart because he practiced a lot, but because he has an ability to enjoy tirelessly vigorous practice. I appreciate -achievers. But I appreciate over-achievers who are happy and inspire other people.
    And… Amy Chua.. I don’t see any virtue in her arguments.
    In addition, I really didn’t like her drawing the line between races, saying that the kind of parenting is something Asians are good at. Being Asian for myself, some of them ring true and I don’t like some of effects my upbringing had on me. But, really, that was over-simplification.

  14. The Amy Chua excerpt was completely misleading. The actual book was very thought provoking. I recommend reading it for the full picture.

  15. Both genetics and practice influence performance. What science is “recently” finding is that to achieve an expert level of performance, practice is more important than genetics. Genetical predisposition, be it longer legs or stronger muscle fibers, play an important role at the lower and higher ends of the performance spectrum. If you are genetically predisposed, you will start faster, and if you keep at it, you might end up better than a non-predisposed expert.
    But the distance between an amateur and an expert is larger than the difference among experts, so one may just say that practice is more important.
    Additionally, there are lots of misconceptions regarding prodigies and geniuses. Mozart’s talents have been enhanced romantically, but I suggest you read a good biographical account and see how his very early compositions were just compilations of existing pieces or pretty much arranged by his father. It took Mozart, just like any other expert, a large amount of practice hours to achieve expertise. He started earlier, and was obsessed by music (his sister did not) and that helped a lot to develop his innate predispositions.
    Finally, to those saying that we have been brainwashed to be consumed by achieving: actually we evolved to feel good about achievement… we are genetically predisposed, not brainwashed :)

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