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Talent is Overrated – What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

“What if everything you know about raw talent, hard work, and great performance is wrong?” begins Geoff Colvin’s book, which I admit I doubted when I began Talent is Overrated. But then I read this line in the introduction and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

“We tell our kids that if they just work hard, they’ll be fine. It turns out that this is exactly right. They’ll be fine, just like all those other people who work at something for most of their lives and get along perfectly acceptably but never become particularly good at it.”

The problem, of course, is that as the world becomes more and more of a global market “a fast-growing number of workers everywhere have to be just as good – and just as good a value – as the very best workers in their field anywhere on earth.”

The reality is a lot of people work hard. They spend their lives toiling away at jobs and feel like they have nothing to show for it in the end. And quite frankly, after reading this line, I forgot about my kids and thought about myself. I’ve still got twenty-five years before I retire, which according to Colvin is plenty of time to excel – if you commit to “deliberate practice.”

But first Colvin argues why our original assumptions are wrong. As he points out, “the natural-gift explanation also explains why extraordinary performers are so rare; god-given talents are presumably not handed out willy-nilly.” Colvin states what’s nice about this explanation is that it takes the matter of great performance out of our hands. “If we were really a natural at anything, we’d know it by now.”

What about Mozart? Tiger Woods? Well, according to Colvin, since scientists have yet to discover a piano or golf playing gene, it was disciplined practice over a period of a decade that resulted to phenomenal success. What about the symphony Mozart supposedly composed at five? Having the advantage of a father classically trained in composition and performing, Mozart began studying music intensively at age three so within a few years he was able to rework piano concertos using the work of musicians like Bach. In fact, Mozart was twenty-one before he wrote an original composition.

And what about Tiger Woods? “Neither Tiger nor his father suggested that Tiger came into this world with a gift for golf.” Still, his father does admit he gave him a golf club at six months and set up his high chair in the garage where Tiger could watch his father, an avid golf fan, hit balls. Therefore, when Tiger became a member of the U.S. team at nineteen, “he had been practicing golf with tremendous intensity, first under his father and after age four under professional teachers, for seventeen years.”

Colvin goes on to rebuke claims of extraordinary memory or exceptional I.Q.s before he eventually offers a convincing alternative explanation. He uses the accomplishments of football star Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history (that fifteen teams passed over before the San Francisco 49ers finally signed him). What made him become exceptional? He worked harder in practice and in the off-season. “Of all the work Rice did to make himself a great player, practically none of it was playing football games;” rather Colvin argues conditioning and running precise patterns enabled him to work on specific needs. “While supported by others, he did much of the work on his own…and it wasn’t fun,” which is why, Colvin explains, he was able to defy the conventional limits of age, retiring at forty-two after twenty seasons.

While Colvin recognizes “it’s natural to question how much relevance a football star’s career might have for the rest of us,” he refers to a lot of research in a wide-range of fields to substantiate his claims, which is why I’m anxious to finish reading Talent is Overrated so I can learn more about what deliberate practice is and how I can apply it to my life. Oh, and I almost forgot, my kids’.


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Victoria Winterhalter

Victoria Winterhalter

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.

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