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.
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.
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?