Talent is Overrated Summary and Review

by Geoff Colvin
Has Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. In nearly every discipline, standards for what justifies good performance are rising rapidly, so figuring out where the marker for the best performance comes from is more important than it’s ever been. In order to have a leg up in today’s day and age, it’s super important to be able to refine your skills in the smartest way you can. But the first step to doing this is leaving behind the belief that people are born into greatness. In the following book summaries, you’ll follow one man’s strange quest to breed his very own chess prodigies, what motivated Benjamin Franklin to skip church on Sundays, how tennis players know where to run so that they can return a serve without even looking at the ball, and why you don’t have to be a genius to know which horse to bet on. But maybe more importantly, you’ll learn the necessary tools to turn what might right now be an average performance into a world class performance. The hard truth is, there are no shortcuts on the path to world-class performance.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #1: Contrary to popular belief, it’s not up to innate abilities, nor experience alone when it comes to extraordinary achievement.

Like most people, you likely spend most of your time at work. And also, like most people, you probably simply perform your work just fine without being world-class at it. For instance, an accountant probably wouldn’t rank among the very best accountants in the world even if they’ve been crunching numbers eight hours a day for the past twenty years. So, if it’s true that we devote most of our time at work, why is it that most of us aren’t amazing at what we do? This is actually because extraordinary achievement isn’t simply determined by experience alone! Research has shown that most people don’t actually improve in their jobs, even after they’ve worked in the same field for years; in fact, some actually get worse as they gain experience. Studies have shown that experienced doctors score lower on tests of medical knowledge than their less experienced peers. We also see this trend across many other professions: from auditors detecting fraud to stockbrokers recommending stocks. The truth is that a wealth of experience often causes people to perform worse than their less experienced peers. Achievement doesn’t come from inborn talent either, i.e., the natural ability to succeed more easily. A study in England during the 90’s showed this through seeking out talented individuals. Researchers gathered vast amounts of data on 257 young people, who had all studied music. What surprised the researchers was that those who showed the greatest performance during the study didn’t actually have any more inborn talent than the others! The top performers in the study also showed no signs of extraordinary achievement prior to starting their music training. Conversely, top performers didn’t benefit or gain more from the same amount of practice, which showed that the talent wasn’t based on rapid improvements either.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #2: When it comes to various fields, there is actually hardly a link at all between intelligence and performance.

What makes an “intelligent” person? Is an intelligent person someone who’s able to solve complex math problems? Is it someone who’s good at synthesizing information? While of course, there are many different ways of defining intelligence, we do have one especially popular method of measuring general intelligence: the IQ test. Most people would agree that a high IQ score means that you’ll have a greater chance of being successful in life. A huge reason for this might be that, in general, the average IQ of employees does generally increase with the complexity of their tasks. Because these more complex tasks generally get higher rewards, it appears that a higher IQ leads to more success. When it’s looked at a bit closer, it’s actually clear that IQ scores don’t mean as much as we think it does when it comes to great performance and success. For example, there was a study conducted that looked at the relationship between sales performance and IQ. Through this study, they found that when you ask bosses to rate the salespeople they employ, they tend to hold a belief that more intelligent employees actually do a better job. However, when it came to the researchers measuring intelligence and the actual sales results of these employees, they found that there was no correlation, thus rendering intelligence useless as a predictor of sales performance. This means that the results of this study can’t possibly be limited to just sales performance. Another example of this is found in horse racing, in which so-called handicappers predict which horses will win the race. There was an experiment, in which researchers looked at handicappers’ abilities and their IQs. What they found is that handicappers with higher IQs were actually no better at making predictions than handicappers with lower IQs, in spite of the demanding nature of forecasting the complex odds involved in determining a horse’s skill. In fact, one of the best handicappers was a construction worker with an IQ of 85, earning the classification “dull normal” when it came to his IQ, and among the worst of the handicappers was a “bright normal” lawyer with an IQ of 118. Even when it comes to activities like chess, people often associate greatness with genius-level IQs, when in reality, there are even grandmasters of chess with below average IQs.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #3: Contrary to popular belief, the majority of great innovators actually spent years intensely preparing before they actually made their breakthroughs.

What did your last “aha” moment feel like? Was it a sudden stroke of genius that came out of nowhere? If so, you’re not alone, and this actually comes from the idea that creative breakthroughs strike us out of the blue, which permeates our culture. Think, for example, of the story of Archimedes, who actually realized as he got into the bath, that he would be able to measure the volume of an irregular object by measuring its water displacement. And then there’s Abraham Lincoln, who wrote the iconic Gettysburg Address when he had a burst of inspiration while on the train to Gettysburg. There are so many of these stories, which work to illustrate just how widespread of an idea it is that the great innovators make their greatest creative breakthroughs after experiencing sudden strokes of genius. However, there has actually been quite a bit of recent research that shows that creative breakthroughs nearly never happen just out of nowhere, but rather come to those who are already masters of their fields. There was one study which looked at the works of seventy-six different composers during different historical periods to see when they first produced their most notable works. What they discovered is that each composer required on average a ten-year “preparatory period” before he was able to produce anything noteworthy. There are another, similar study which discovered the same pattern when it came to painters and poets. In fact, research has shown that this “ten-year rule” holds for outstanding performers in any domain, showing that, no matter what you do, producing noteworthy innovations requires a deep and intense immersion in a field over a period of time. But what about the breakthroughs of Lincoln and Archimedes? In fact, drafts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address have been found on White House writing paper, demonstrating that it may not have come from in a sudden burst of inspiration at all. And Archimedes himself never even hinted at the bathtub story in any of his vast writings, leading scholars to conclude that the story is a mere myth.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #4: Practice truly is the key when it comes to achieving world-class performance.

We all know the saying “practice makes perfect.” In order to improve at something, it’s important to practice, and practice often – whether we’re working on our putt or trying to achieve more at work. And, it’s undeniable that there is definitely a powerful correlation when it comes to time spent practicing and increased performance. We see this best in a study that had the goal of finding out why some violinists are better performers than others. Researchers asked professors at a prestigious music academy to name their best violinists, and then collected extensive biographical data on those performers: e.g., how often they practiced, what teachers they had, when they started studying music, etc. The researchers even performed tests and interviews with the musicians. In the end, researchers discovered that their practicing was the only factor that actually differentiated them from each other: by most accounts, the best violinists didn’t differ all that much from their peers, except that they spent more time practicing. However, in order to become a truly world-class performer,  it’s actually how – not just how much – you practice that makes the difference. It takes deliberate practice to improve performance. Practicing deliberately means specifically working on identifying the elements of performance that require improvement and then sharply focusing on actually improving those areas. Practicing those activities ad nauseum and then getting continuous feedback on them is the best way to improve. Psychologist László Polgár, demonstrated this best. Polgár wanted to show that great performers are made through this kind of intense practice. So, he set up his own experiment. He found a volunteer named Klara, who agreed to have children with him and help raise them to be world-class chess players. Despite the fact that neither László nor Klara were especially good at chess, their eccentric experiment worked! Their three daughters, who grew up completely immersed in chess – playing chess every day for hours on end and having huge chess libraries at their disposal – all became world-class chess players.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #5: Practicing deliberately actually helps the performer perceive, know, and even remember more, thus altering their brain and body.

You’ve likely had the experience of watching an extraordinary performer, such as an acrobat or ballerina and thought that they must be superhuman – someone fundamentally different from you and everybody you know – in order to be able to perform those feats. And although they aren’t actually superhuman, in a way, your feeling is true: the deliberate practice that exemplifies these great performers actually does make them fundamentally different from most people in a number of ways. The first thing is, deliberate practice actually helps people to perceive more relevant information when it comes to their field of expertise. Another great example is some research that was done on top tennis players that showed that when they received a serve, they didn’t focus on the ball, but rather they would look at the player’s body to see where the serve would go prior to the serve even being hit. Due to the fact that they’ve practiced deliberately this skill by receiving tens of thousands of serves, they’re able to perceive subtle cues based on the opponent’s physical position that might be invisible to anyone else. On top of this, deliberate practice can help people to absorb and actually remember vast amounts of knowledge when it comes to their fields of expertise. It’s also important to note that some master chess players are even able to beat computers at the game. But how is that even possible when it’s possible for computers to evaluate 200 million chess positions per second? Contrary to how computers work when it comes to playing chess, master chess players have spent years deliberately practicing and accumulating vast amounts of knowledge of the game. Because they’ve studied the great chess masters before them, they’ve accumulated the knowledge of which choices will produce which consequences, without having to make the calculations themselves. This means that they’re able to prevail, even against a computer. Finally, practicing deliberately can actually alter a person’s body and brain physically. Really, after years of intense training, the hearts of endurance runners actually grow in size. On top of that, the composition of athletes’ muscles changes after years of practice as well. Deliberate practice can also alter our brains. A great example of this is when it comes to children practicing playing a musical instrument. When they practice regularly and deliberately, the regions of their brains that are devoted to interpreting tones and controlling their fingers actually grow to assume more brain territory.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #6: Starting to practice deliberately early in life clearly has advantages.

Have you ever considered why it might be that the theory of relativity wasn’t conceived by a college student studying physics. When we talk about “great achievements” in the realm of physics, we’re generally referring to new discoveries. However, it’s also true that in order to make new discoveries, you’ll first need to have an extensive understanding of the existing laws and theories. In other words: you need a lot of knowledge. This means that making groundbreaking achievements is incredibly difficult in fields where knowledge is constantly advancing. Heavily knowledge-based fields, like physics and business, require more studying in order to fully understand concepts as time passes, making it ever harder to reach new discoveries. We can see this when looking at the increasing age at which Nobel Prize winners actually make their noteworthy achievements: the average age has risen by a whole six years within a one-hundred-year period! Why? This is because it takes longer to master the body of knowledge in each of their fields, since it’s constantly growing, so it’s harder to reach the point where discoveries can be made. Due to this, starting early in deliberate practice can offer several advantages that simply won’t be available to late starters. To start, children and adolescents won’t have to deal with the same time-consuming responsibilities that come with adulthood, like work and family, meaning they can spend more of their time practicing. On top of this, starting off early offers the advantage of having a support network: family. While of course, not all families provide the perfect supportive and stimulating environments necessary for developing skills, families who do provide this greatly benefit their children when it comes to achieving great performance. Actually, it’s been shown through recent research that the home environments of top performers are child-oriented, meaning that their parents believe in them and are willing to make an effort to help them. Lastly, our mental faculties actually slow down as we age. It’s been shown through various studies that it takes us almost twice as long to solve unfamiliar problems once we reach our sixties as it does in our twenties, once again illustrating the importance of starting early to achieve greatness.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #7: Developing motivation to perform happens over time, and eventually, this motivation has to become a self-driven force.

Putting in the amount of deliberate practice it takes to become a world-class performer is hard work; without the proper motivation, it would be impossible to achieve. However, where does this passion and motivation actually come from? A good place to start is with a mechanism called the multiplier effect. The idea behind this is that having a small initial advantage in a certain field can actually create a snowball effect – e.g., receiving more support and better coaching. This can then produce even greater advantages. Imagine a person with a strong forearm and quick reflexes taking pride in having a bit of an edge over his peers when playing baseball. This pride can affect him positively in a number of ways: perhaps it will motivate him to practice more, or maybe his coaches will take notice of him, thus providing him with the opportunity to play on a team with more professional training, which will only further increasing his abilities. The multiplier effect shows how the initial satisfaction you get from seeing yourself as even just a little better than other people is able to produce sufficient motivation which can drive practice and improvement, thus multiplying your advantage over others. Actually, studies have shown consistently that in order to achieve in just about any field – be it baseball or the arts – you need an “inner drive,” i.e., a long-lasting motivation to become good at something, even when there is no external reward. However, while world-class achievers tend to have a strong motivation to improve, most didn’t start out that way, and instead needed to be pushed in the direction of achievement. There was a study that included twenty-four highly acclaimed pianists which discovereda that lessons had actually been forced upon the musicians when they were children. Yet, the performers did say that the drive to achieve did eventually become their own – and credited it for the reason they kept going. Indeed, external motivators, such as forced lessons, can actually be highly effective catalysts for inner drives during the early stages of learning.

Talent is Overrated Key Idea #8: Decide what it is you want to achieve, and practice in areas that will get you there.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to travel back in time so that you can reap the benefits of starting early. This doesn’t mean though, that you can’t still apply the principles of deliberate practice, even as an adult, and doing so will help you reach your goals. The first thing is that because achieving exceptional performance is incredibly demanding, it’s important to know precisely what your goals are and be committed to reaching them even when the circumstances aren’t ideal. For example, let’s look at Ted Williams, who is known as baseball’s greatest hitter. He is said to have practiced until his hands bled. While it’s not necessary to lose any blood in order to achieve great things, you will need rock-solid determination in order to put in the amount of practice necessary to become great. And you can only get this determination when you know what you want: simply “liking” baseball won’t drive you to put in the practice necessary to become a world-class player. For example, Benjamin Franklin definitely displayed this type of dedication. Because he was such a diligent writer, he often spent time writing both before and after his workday as a printer’s apprentice. He even wrote on Sundays, despite his Puritan upbringing. He simply knew he wanted to be a great writer, and therefore made time for it. The next thing is that achieving great things also requires that you identify the specific skills you need to improve, and then practice them directly. Practicing this way means working diligently on these specific aspects of your dream, rather than simply practicing these skills in a more general way that might not actually help you improve. Looking back to Benjamin Franklin: he didn’t become an extraordinary writer by merely writing lots of essays. Instead, he actually practiced the writing skills that needed improvement. For instance, when he found that he needed to practice his syntax, he repeatedly summarized and reformulated newspaper articles, comparing the evolution of his sentences so that he could get feedback and keep improving.

In Review: Talent is Overrated Book Summary

The key message in this book: It’s common belief that it is due to people’s natural talent that they’re able to become world-class performers. However, as you’ve seen in this book summary, talent actually has almost nothing to do with a person’s performance. Truthfully, world-class performance comes over a long period of time through deliberate practice, i.e., zeroing in on the critical aspects of a skill with laser-sharp focus and practicing them repeatedly. After this, it’s important to get feedback so that you can keep improving. With proper motivation, you’ll then be able to practice deliberately so that you can improve in any field you want to achieve in. Actionable advice: Practice deliberately for the best results. In order to become great in your field, it’s important to focus more on how you practice, rather than how many hours you practice. Making the biggest improvements will require you to design a system of deliberate practice which actually focuses on these areas that are critical to improving in your field. For instance, if you’re looking to improve in public speaking, you should spend your time analyzing your speeches and looking for ways to improve specific aspects of them — such as clarity or eloquence — and then get feedback from public speaking experts.