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"Talent is Overrated Primer" - What the **** is Deliberate Practice?

I finally finished the book "Talent is Overrated" by Fortune Editor-at-Large Geoff Colvin, which explores the question of whether pure talent or hard, focused work is the key to becoming a world class performer in any discipline.  As you might expect, the book concludes that you can't become world class at anything without putting in tons of hours on your craft, and making sure those hours are focused in a certain way.  I read it.  I'm a believer.

The following is one of five quick primers I'll do on the book focused on the following concepts: 1) whatTalent is overrated Deliberate Practice is, 2) applying the concepts of Deliberate Practice to the workplace and your organization, 3) why creativity is a myth, 4) why great talent continues to perform as it ages, and 5) where passion comes from and the "multiplier effect".

Primer #1 - The Concept of Deliberate Practice

Quotes from the book that catch the essence of deliberate practice:

"What you believe about the source of great performance thus becomes the foundation of all you will ever achieve…Above all, what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone."

"Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have any natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. (p 119)

Colvin believes research on high performers clearly shows that inborn talent doesn't explain high achievement, but rather is dependent on something he calls "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.  The characteristics of deliberate practice include:

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.

2) Deliberate practice is sequential. 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.

3) Deliberate practice means feedback from mentor or coach.  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.

4) Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally and isn't much fun.  Surely you expected this.  The cost of time, attention and effort is high, so not many sustain the type of deliberate practice required to be great in any field.  Available to all, captured and sustained by few.

More on the concept of deliberate practice from awhile back related to baseball star Alex Rodriguez from Freakonomics:

"Deliberate practice means that regardless of your level of natural talent, excellence is accomplished mainly through the tenets of deliberate practice, which are roughly:

1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
2. Set specific goals.
3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

This Times article by Tyler Kepner describes how Bobby Meacham, the Yankees’ new third-base coach, recalls seeing a young Alex Rodriguez approach the game. At the time, Meacham was a minor league manager whose team was hosting A-Rod’s minor league team:

“I said, ‘This guy goes about his business not like he wants to get to the big leagues, but like he wants to be the best,’” Meacham said.

“He knows he’s going to be good, but he wants to be great. There was just a method to it.”

In fielding practice, Meacham remembered, Rodriguez would ask for grounders to his right and to his left, and he would ask for fielders at second for a double play and at first for throws across the diamond. In batting practice, he would focus on specific disciplines — grounders the other way, liners to the gaps, and so on.

“At 18 or 19 years old, he already had a plan,” Meacham said. “It was pretty awesome to watch.”

To close this section, I'm a big believer in the concept of deliberate practice, after reading the book.  Next week, I'll cover the challenges outlined by Colvin in applying the concepts of Deliberate Practice to the workplace and your organization. 

Until then?  Go out in the yard and take 20 grounders to the left and right and make the force out throw to second.  Make sure your spouse provides real, brutal feedback.  Repeat daily...


Lisa in Houston

I read this book (and Outliers, too) right after the original post. Very interesting stuff! Looking forward to next week's post. Thanks, Capitalist for bringing them to our attention!

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