Lit Review: Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Note: I wrote this last month, but neglected to post it to this blog.

We all want to know what it takes to excel.  Perhaps there is not a single domain that we passionately wish to dominate, but we admire excellence and are astounded by the feats of those great performers in history.  We wonder, too, what it takes to shoot hoops like Michael Jackson or compose music like Mozart.  Typically, we explain great performance in one of two ways: those who truly excel work harder than the rest of us.  Or, they possess some inborn talent for excelling in their chosen field.  In Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin, a highly respected journalist and the senior editor-at-large of Fortune Magazine, attacks both of these explanations for greatness, and offers an alternative: deliberate practice.  In this review, I will explain Colvin’s arguments, make some comparisons to a similar book published in the same year (Outliers by M. Gladwell), and connect the book to the field of instructional design.

Of the two beliefs about where great performance comes from, Colvin spends more time attacking the role of talent (hence the title of the book).  There may still be some gene that predisposes one to excellence at golf, but as of now, no research has turned it up.  Specifically targeted innate abilities – “gifts,” we often call them – are fictions.  In fact, Colvin explains, many of the world’s “greats” are “amazingly average” (Colvin, 2008, p. 7).  Intelligence is useless in predicting most great performance, for performance relies on developed abilities in specific domains, while intelligence only demonstrates extraordinary general abilities.  It is true that IQ is a decent predictor of performance at unfamiliar tasks; however, once a person has learned the domain, IQ no longer gives an edge.  Colvin’s argument draws heavily on the work of Anders Ericsson, whom he credits in his acknowledgements.  Ericsson saw subjects increase their ability to memorize numbers from the accepted seven-number limit (plus or minus two) to digit lists stretching into the hundreds, and argued for “the remarkable potential of ‘ordinary’ adults and their amazing capacity for change with practice” (p. 38).  Thus memory too, often seen as a quality that many excellent performers have in overabundance, is also a developed and not an innate ability (p. 46).

This emphasis on practice and development might initially seem to support the second belief about great performance: those who truly excel do so because they work harder than the rest of us.  After all, Colvin describes a study of British musicians, which showed that only one factor “predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced” (p. 18).  Colvin also refers to the “ten year rule,” a general rule of thumb that it takes at least ten years to master a domain.  However, Colvin distinguishes between deliberate practice and the type of practice most of us do, which “hasn’t accomplished a thing” (p. 66).  For the rest of his book, he first explains what deliberate practice is, and then, finding the principles widely generalizable, applies them to his own domain of expertise: the business world.  It is important that American business people understand and practice these principles, Colvin notes, because today’s large-scale global labor market has dramatically increased the pressures on individuals and businesses to excel: today they truly must “go up against” (p. 15) the world’s very best.

Read the rest of my review here:  Lit Review – Talent Is


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