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Talent is Overrated - The Great Ones Aren't Born, They Fail...

Are the great ones born or developed?  That question has always been of interest to me since I saw an early Eddie Murphy movie called "Trading Places", in which one rich brother picks nature as the answer, the other picks nuture.

More recently, Fortune's Geoff Colvin has released a book titled "Talent is Overrated", in which he pointsChris_Rock1200414623temp to recent research that indicates that stars are usually not born, but developed through a practice called "deliberate practice". 

More on the theory from Colvin via Fortune:

"So if specific, inborn talent doesn't explain high achievement, what does? Researchers have converged on an answer. It's something they call "deliberate practice," but watch out - it isn't what most of us think of as practice, nor does it boil down to a simplistic practice-makes-perfect explanation.

It isn't just hard work, either. Deliberate practice is a specific and unique kind of activity, neither work nor play. It's characterized by several elements that together form a powerful whole. The greatest performers have consistently combined these elements, sometimes just by luck.

But now that researchers have decoded the pattern, the path to top performance is becoming much more accessible. The elements of deliberate practice are each worth examining:

1) Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance. The key word is "designed." The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don't do it in the activities we think of as practice. At the driving range or at the piano, most of us are just doing what we've done before and hoping to maintain the level of performance that we probably reached long ago.

By contrast, deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them. Tiger Woods - intensely applying this principle, which is no secret among pro golfers - has been seen to drop golf balls into a sand trap and step on them, then practice shots from that near-impossible lie.

The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they're improved; then it's on to the next aspect. In most fields, years of study have produced a body of knowledge about how performance is developed and improved, and full-time teachers generally possess that knowledge.

At least in the early going, therefore, and sometimes long after, it's almost always necessary for a teacher to design the activity best suited to improve an individual's performance. It's striking how many great performers had fathers who started designing their practice activities at early ages; Tiger, Picasso, and Mozart are perfect examples.

So is the New York Giants' Super Bowl MVP quarterback, Eli Manning, whose father, Archie, was a successful NFL quarterback. Archie was always ready with instruction for Eli (and for his brother Peyton, Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts). Eli always seemed clear that intense practice was key. According to a new biography, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, "Eli never bought into the gene theory."

Fascinating stuff.  Watch the video and think about it the next time you're shooting hoops with your kid or watching them play an instrument...


David Gray


I agree. This is definitely compelling. I just posted the Fortune article on our Learning Center bulletin board this morning and ordered the book earlier this week. We should discuss once we've both read it.

Now I'm going to bury some golf balls in a bunker...


Joel Kimball

Ever listen to a truly great musician practice? It's booooooooring. Cause they're doing exactly what's described here - isolating one thing and then the next and doing it over, and over, and over, and over, and over...
And that's why they're great musicians. Compelling stuff - I'm thinking about how to apply at work....
Ah well - off to go deliberately practice aspects of succession planning - adios.

Chris - Manager's Sandbox

Looks like I have a lot of work to do!


This is so true. There is something very compelling in listening to and learning from someone who has "been there, done that, poorly" and "did it differently, better" the next time. There is a post in there somewhere for me but it is not quite making it to the top yet :)


David - I agree, we need to grab some coffee after we read it. Ordered mine this week too...

Joel - Unfortunately, I've never seen a great musician practice. Mostly Green Day cover bands, not so much on the practice thing...

Lisa and Chris - Thanks for stopping by. Lisa, I'm interested in the concept of "deliberate practice" on this one. Sounds like the theory is that someone can fail and keep practicing the normal way, and still fail. Interested to see what the book holds and if it can be applied with knowledge work...

Thanks - KD

Suzanne Rumsey

Kris, you raised the question that I have been pondering since I read the excerpt of Colvin's book in Fortune: is the concept of deliberate practice at all applicable in today's business world, given how organizations must operate today to respond to the demands of shareholders, etc.? I am not sure that business stakeholders allow the time necessary for delibrate practice in most fields, because the focus is on making money for shareholders, not perfecting a practice, a service, or a product (Microsoft operating systems, anyone?). Even fields, like medecine, that could benefit from deliberate practice - well, most environments (e.g., those operated by publicly owned corporations) wouldn't allow the time, being more concerned with cost and profit. You mentioned an interest in how deliberate practice could be applied to knowledge work. I'd be interested to know how your thinking is coming together on this...


Dan McCarthy

Kris –
Is there such thing as a natural born leader? Yes and mostly no. Sure, you’ve got to have a reasonable IQ and a lot of energy – but the rest is all developed through a lifetime of experience and hard work.
I often use Chuck Yeager as an example, when he responded to a question about the notion of “the right stuff”: “There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot. Whatever my aptitude or talents, becoming a professional pilot was hard work, really a lifetime's experience."

Meg Bear

I love this concept, I think a few related concepts are the idea of having a "growth mindset" and setting goals for yourself to focus your energy on that deliberate practice. Awesome stuff.

Randy Street

As a management assessor, I get to hear the career paths of executives all the time. The great ones are those who have a passion for some part of business (e.g. sales, or operational challenges, or whatever). Their passion drives them to spend a lot of time on the thing they love to do most with a single minded focus on getting better at it. They end up rising through the ranks because they seem to have natural abilities, when in fact their success is the result of years of hard work. Executives who have no real focus tend to flounder as they progress through their career.

Wally Bock

Colvin's article and book are both compelling. And deliberate practice is a powerful learning tool. But there's a danger to read this as "talent doesn't matter." Talent may be overrated but it still matters and it still affects performance.

My phrasing for what Dan said above is that "leaders are sometimes born, but ALWAYS made." Consider his Chuck Yeager example. Yes, a lifetime's experience was important, but so was a genetic code that provided exceptional eyesight and eye-hand coordination, not to mention lightning fast reflexes.

For most of the top performers I've seen up close, there's a mix of natural ability, work ethic, and, whether they call it by the name or not, deliberate practice.


Just wondering is this book worth paying $25.00 for? Meaning am I only going to take away that I need to deliberately practice what ever it is I want to become expert at or does it delve into the application of deliberate practice?

I am wondering if he gives systematic examples of what it takes to deliberately practice correctly? And does he give advice on seeking out the right mentors or people for feed back?

Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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