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Review: _Talent is Overrated_, by Geoff Colvin
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I was lent this book by a colleague, who desperately wanted someone to discuss it with. And indeed, there is much to discuss. I have returned the book, though, so this discussion is filtered through my faulty memory.

The basic thesis of the book is that, as far as diligent scientific research can detect, there is no such thing as 'inborn talent'. Achievement of excellence, even at the very highest levels, comes from what he calls 'directed practice'. The more of this you do, the better you get, all the way up the scale, in every field of endeavor.

Child prodigies appear to be a largely mythical construct. It's true that Mozart made his first compositions at somethi like age 3 -- but they were derivative and forgettable. His first compositions that were worthy of lasting attention came at age 21. That's still very young, but the relevant point is that it happens after *18 years* of diligent practice!

The author uses the phrase 'directed practice' to make clear that it's a technical term, not loose english usage. Directed practice can take many forms, but all sharing some basic characteristics.

Focus on core skills. Actually doing the job is *not* directed practice. Instead, focus on the particular sub-skills and ruthlessly hone them.

Work at the edge. Practice in an aa that stretches you. Not so easy that there's little to learn; not so hard as to be daunting.

Contant feedback on the practice. Teachers can be a big help here, but there are ways to get useful feedback without them.

Mental focus is key. Even if your field is a physical one, the mind does most of the work.

This is *hard*. Even the most dedicated of pros can't do it for more than 4-5 hours a day, even with breaks between sessions.

Do that work, and you'll improve. Do that work a lot, diligently, for decades, and you'll excel at your chosen field, pretty much gauranteed. But note that this is a recipe for excellence, *not* necessarily happiness, and certainly not for having stable emotional relationships. Which goes a long way towards explaining why so few people do this. The good news is that, even in lesser doses, directed practice will improve one's performance.

This book is primarily, though far from exclusively, targeted at business management types. It contains a lot of advice about how to concretize these abstract principles into directed practice techniques for managers. Thankfully, he also spends some time on the more general issue of how to apply these ideas to other fields. Now my colleague and I are trying to work out techniques for directed practice in the still infant field of videogame design. This is non-trivial, but I am detecting progress already...

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But he don't know Mozart

I don't know about the rest of his research, but the Mozart example is way off base. The claim that he suddenly blossomed at age 21, for example, is really strange. I checked the Kochel listings, and as far as I can tell, the year 1777 (when he turned 21) was not a landmark year. True, his great operas came AFTER this, but so much came before. Several operas, 30+ symphonies, many divertimenti. . .I have no idea where your author hit upon age 21 as some sort of turning point.
And yes, his 3-year old compositions were derivative, but his young teenage compositions changed the musical world. As did those of Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn.
Besides, talent in the business world is so different from talent in the musical world. There may be "mute inglorious Miltons" or even unrecognized Mozarts, but "unknown Bill Gateses"?
I do agree completely with his ideas on the necessity of practice; I knew early on that I could never turn my piano-playing talent into a real career--not enough single-minded dedication to the practicing.

Re: But he don't know Mozart

I may have the specific age wrong, as I'm working from memory. I recall that his standard of 'enduring excellence' was 'number of modern recordings'. One could certainly quibble with that standard, but it has the virtues of being quantifiable, and as close to objective as one is ever likely to get in matters of artistic merit.

I'm not sure about you, but I don't know many people who were making musical compositions--even derivative, forgettable ones--at age three.

Practice and diligence are important, of course, but this theory doesn't seem to account for fields where people (particularly at those "very highest levels") can be assumed to have the same level of dedication, but achieve different results. I can't point to diligent scientific research, but I find it difficult to believe you can simply duplicate excellence by duplicating approach--bronze medallists try hard, too, as do many of those who fail to make the qualifying rounds.

Conveniently, the less-quantifiable "mental focus" is part of the definition of "directed practice," so the author can simply blame any differences in end results on that. Does he account for differences in ability in any other way, when directed practice is assumed?

"fields where people (particularly at those "very highest levels") can be assumed to have the same level of dedication, but achieve different results"

In the individual cases and broader studies he talks about, that assumption is generally shown to be false.

"Does he account for differences in ability in any other way, when directed practice is assumed?"

Well, for physical activities, the physical body does matter a lot. Someone who is five-foot-one is never going to play for the NBA, no matter how much/well they practice.

I may perhaps have overstated his position(s). He doesn't claim that amount of directed practice accounts for 100% of success. He *does* claim that it accounts for very much of success, and more than any other scientifically identified factor.

I'm not sure about you, but I don't know many people who were making musical compositions--even derivative, forgettable ones--at age three.

You beat me to it. :)

I can't point to diligent scientific research

Ah, but I can. That is, I am aware of the scientific literature in this area, but don't have it to hand; if you'd like I can actually come up with academic citations for you if it is important to you.

The field in question is the academic study of excellence and mastery (yes, there is such a thing), and what it has found is that "10,000 hours rule" you now see bandied about the internet and MSM: that in every field examined, from classical violin, to chess playing, to olympic sports, the difference between the very, very best in the field, and the next best rank, is that the top ranked had at least 10,000 hours of quality practice under their belt, and the also rans didn't. I seem to recall something like the difference in the top 5% from the second 5% was 20% more hours.

This is the research the above author is almost certainly referring to. Part of why it is so interesting is that it naturally controls for quality of practice: by comparing top ranked and second ranked violinists with conservatory training, you can reasonably assume absolutely everybody has the same practice techniques, the same rigorous study. What differs, contrary to what everyone expected, is sheer quantity of practice.

Gladwell in Outliers goes into this in quite some detail. One important dimension of what gets called "genius" or "talent" is that for a variety of perfectly coincidental reasons, some people get to start on their practice much earlier in life.

That doesn't explain all precocity -- your comment about Mozart is quite apt -- but let us not forget that by some estimates, Mozart hit about 10,000 hrs of practice playing and improvising at the keyboard in his early adulthood, because he got to start when he was three.

How many people do you know who were started on an instrument at three years old?

Perhaps the single most useful aspect of native talent is that it tends to induce other people to give you important opportunities to get a head start on mastery, opportunities that other, less talented people don't get.

"Perhaps the single most useful aspect of native talent is that it tends to induce other people to give you important opportunities to get a head start on mastery, opportunities that other, less talented people don't get."

One of the major points of the book is that all scientific studies designed to find 'native talent' have failed to find it. (He is careful to acknowledge that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.)

What actually appears to be happening is that either parents start intensive training at a very young age, or the child, for reasons of their own, becomes obsessed with a particular field. Measured against other people entering the field at later ages, and in more conventional circumstances, the progress of these 'prodigies' shows no statistically significant differences in quality of output after a given amount of practice.

There is still variation, of course. But it appears that the most significant part of variation is in the amount of dedication. One telling example he gives is of a couple who decided to test similar theories on their own children. They had three daughters, and trained them all from an early age to be chess experts (though neither of them was such an expert themselves). All three children achieved world-class status, but there was significant variation in how high they got. And the ones who achieved more were those who cared enough to put in more work than their siblings.

Sadly, I have no talent for directed practice.

Business management is loaded with books that have grains of truth mired in... nonsense that sounds plausible for the sake of giving you a whole pill you'll swallow. It is generally not enough to give people techniques that work - they have to be given a story as to why given the techniques, and only the given techniques, will work.

"Directed practice" sounds like a good idea, a fine basis for techniques in training. The "there is no such thing as talent" thing sounds much weaker to me, and flies in the face of my own experience in education.

That reaching the very top of performance requires a great deal of training and practice seems solid enough to me. But it simply is not true that sufficient practice [i]will[/i] get you to reach top performance. There are trivial examples that falsify it in general (learning disability), and what I know of neurology and cognitive sciences shows pretty strongly that there is such a thing as aptitude.

Variation is natural, and good for a species. I've seen no good evidence to suggest that human cognition (and thus skill performance) does not contain variation.

so can we agree that "practice alone does NOT make perfect, but perfection requires practice."

Generations of freshman comp students have believed firmly in the "aptitude" myth--I don't know how many times I heard "But I just don't have any talent for writing," when what they meant was "I don't like to write, so I avoid doing it whenever possible." Same with reading.

Writing is different

The difference is that everybody has an ingrained talent for language. (Well. There are exceptions, among the severely retarded; but they don't make it to freshman comp.)

Not everybody has the talent to be a Shakespeare, or even a Piers Anthony; but every healthy human brain should be able to use language well enough to pass freshman composition.

so can we agree that "practice alone does NOT make perfect, but perfection requires practice."

Largely, yes. There are several extensions as well and embellishments that run alongside that - mostly dealing with that wide swath between no practice at all and the 10,000 hours.

You're probably right. What might mask it is that very few people are going to put in 10,000 hours of practice on something their brain isn't suited for.

Good point.

In "Outliers," Gladwell's point that interested me most was that the 10,000 hour rule worked for the conservatory trained musicians *without exception* i.e., there were no "talented" musicians in the top rank who glided in without doing the whole 10,000 hours, and there were no "grinds" in the lower ranks who had the 10,000 hours but just weren't good enough. If you did the 10,000 hours, you were expert, that was that.

The Talent Code is another book that talks extensively about this idea, and the biological mechanism of it (myelin sheathing of the specific neural pathways needed for that skill). My own belief is that practice IS the most important factor, and "talent" comprises two other important factors. (1)Enjoyment of the activity, which motivates one to practice it more, and (2)Some kind of personal problem-solving style that distinguishes one in some way from other practitioners of the same technical level. And in physical sports, of course the body becomes critical at a pro level.

Those are personal qualities. Also extremely important are opportunity and feedback in one's environment -- e.g. supportive parents and a good teacher.

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