Book Summary: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Are you looking for a book summary of Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin? You have come to the right place.

I jotted down a few key insights from Geoff Colvin’s book after reading it.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

What is Talent is Overrated About?

Talent is Overrated explores the best performers in a variety of fields to discover what makes them so great. This book offers compelling evidence that top performers in any field are not determined by their inborn talent, but rather by deliberate efforts over a long period of time.

Who is the Author of Talent is Overrated?

Editor and columnist for Fortune, Geoff Colvin is a highly respected commentator and lecturer on subjects such as business trends and leadership. Colvin is a regular contributor to CBS Radio Network’s daily business commentary.

Who is Talent is Overrated For?

It is not for everyone to read Talent is Overrated. If you are one of the following types of people, it may be right for you:

  • Anyone interested in finding out what makes a world-class performer
  • Those who wish to apply the principles of great performance to their own lives
  • Those who believe they cannot achieve greatness in some fields “just aren’t cut out”

Talent is Overrated Book Summary

Introduction

Standard of performance is rising rapidly in virtually every discipline, making it more important than ever before to understand where great performance comes from. The smartest way to improve your skills is to know how to refine them in the most effective manner.

Greatness is not something people are born with. The first step is to abandon this belief.

In the following chapters you’ll learn how one man created chess prodigies by breeding them, what motivated Benjamin Franklin to skip church on Sundays, what it takes for tennis players to return a serve without ever looking at the ball, and what it takes to determine what horse is worth betting on.

This book will provide you with the tools necessary to turn your average performance into world-class performance, while highlighting the hard truth that there are no shortcuts on the road to world-class performance.

Lesson 1: Contrary to popular belief, extraordinary achievements are neither determined by inborn ability nor solely by experience

Most of your waking hours are spent at work if you’re like most people. Despite not being a world-class performer, you probably do your job just fine. For example, even if you spend eight hours a day crunching numbers, you probably are not among the best in your field.

Isn’t it strange that people who spend most of their waking hours at work aren’t very good at what they do?

It is surprising that experience isn’t a determinant of extraordinary achievement!

There is extensive research showing that many people don’t improve at their jobs even after many years of experience; in fact, many become worse when they gain experience.

Researchers have found that doctors with more experience perform worse on tests of medical knowledge than their less experienced peers. The same appears to be true for many other professions, including auditors who detect fraud and stockbrokers who make investment recommendations. 

Experienced professionals don’t always perform better than their younger counterparts – and some perform even worse.

In addition, great achievements don’t come from natural ability, i.e., the ability to succeed more easily.

A study conducted in England in the 1990s sought out talented individuals to demonstrate this. Researchers collected large amounts of data about 257 young people who all studied music. It was surprising to find out that the students with the best performance did not appear to have any more inborn talent than the others!

There was no indication that these top performers had a natural talent before they started their intensive music training. There were no greater gains for top performers with the same amount of practice, indicating that talent did not manifest itself in rapid improvements as well.

Lesson 2: Intelligence and performance are weakly correlated in many fields

What does it mean to be intelligent? Can you solve complicated math problems? Can you synthesize information well? Despite the fact that there are many ways of being intelligent, we do have one method of measuring general intelligence that is incredibly popular: the IQ test.

IQ-related success in life is widely believed to be correlated with high IQ scores. It may be that, in general, the IQ of employees increases as tasks become more complex. Complex tasks tend to be well rewarded, so this success makes sense.

Yet, upon closer examination, IQ scores don’t necessarily explain great performance and success.

Consider, for instance, a study that examined the relationship between sales performance and intelligence. In their experiment, they found that, when bosses are asked to rate their salespeople, they tend to believe that their more intelligent employees do a better job. 

Nevertheless, the researchers found no correlation between intelligence and actual sales results, thus rendering intelligence useless as a sales predictor.

This study doesn’t just focus on sales performance. Horse racing is another example, where handicappers forecast which horse will win the race.

Using an experiment, researchers compared handicappers’ abilities with their IQs. Despite the complicated odds involved in determining a horse’s skill, high-IQ handicappers struggled to make accurate predictions.

A construction worker with an IQ of 85 was among the best handicappers; among the worst was a lawyer with an IQ of 118 who was classified as “bright normal”.

It is also common to find grandmasters with below-average IQs in chess, where greatness is often associated with genius-level intelligence.

Lesson 3: The vast majority of great innovators spent years preparing extensively before they made their breakthroughs, contrary to popular belief

Last time you had an “aha” moment, how did it feel? Was it sudden and out of the blue? The concept that creative ideas appear out of nowhere permeates our culture, so you’re not alone.

For instance, Archimedes discovered, when he settled into his bath, that he could measure an irregular object’s volume by measuring how it displaced water.

Also notable is Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly wrote the Gettysburg Address while on the train to Gettysburg.

Such stories show how widespread it is to believe that great innovators had sudden strokes of genius that led to breakthroughs.

Creative breakthroughs, however, rarely occur randomly; they are more likely to happen to those who already possess mastery of their field.

In one study, for example, nearly seventy-six composers’ works were examined over a variety of historical periods to determine when their first significant works were produced. Composers have on average needed a ten-year “preparatory period” before they can produce anything notable. A study of painters and poets found a similar pattern.

This “ten-year rule” is true for outstanding performers in any field, which suggests that learning a field deeply and intensely over time is essential to producing noteworthy innovations.

What about Lincoln’s and Archimedes’ breakthroughs? White House writing paper has been found with drafts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which suggests he did not come up with it suddenly. The bathtub story is not even mentioned by Archimedes himself in all of his writings, which led scholars to conclude that it is a myth.

Lesson 4: To achieve world-class performance, deliberate practice is essential

Practice makes perfect. If we want to get better at something, we need to practice often. No matter whether we’re practicing our putt or trying to do better at work, practice is the key to improvement.

The correlation between practice time and improved performance is undeniable.

This can be seen in a study that analyzed why some violinists perform better than others. 

Professors at a prestigious music academy named their best violinists, and then researchers compiled all types of biographical information about those performers, such as how often they practiced, what teachers they had, when they first studied music, etc. They also conducted tests and interviews with those performers.

The researchers found that practice was the only factor that distinguished the best violinists from their peers: by most accounts, the best violinists did not differ much from their peers except that they practiced more.

To achieve world-class performance, however, it’s not just how much you practice but how you practice that matters: it’s deliberate practice that makes the difference.

When you practice deliberately, you identify the specific aspects of your performance that need improving, you sharply focus on those aspects, you practice them to the point of exhaustion, and you receive continuous feedback about how they are going.

In the words of a particularly dedicated psychologist, László Polgár, this kind of intense practice makes great performers. He decided to experiment on himself by finding a volunteer, Klara, to have children with him and to help raise them to become world-class chess players.

Even though neither László nor Klara were particularly good at chess, their eccentric experiment worked! Their three daughters, who grew up immersed in chess – playing the game for hours on end every day, and having access to a huge chess library at their disposal – all achieved world-class levels of performance.

Lesson 5: The deliberate practice of a skill makes the performer understand, remember, and know more – and even changes the brain and body

When you watch extraordinary performers, such as a circus acrobat or a ballerina, have you ever had the feeling that they must be superhuman – someone fundamentally different from you and everyone you know – to be able to perform such feats?

While they aren’t superhumans, your feeling is true: the deliberate practice that exemplifies these great performers allows them to stand apart from most people in several ways.

In the first place, deliberate practice allows people to perceive more relevant information in their field of expertise. Research on top tennis players shows that they don’t look at the ball when they receive a serve, but rather observe the server’s body before the serve is delivered to judge where the serve is headed. 

As they have received tens of thousands of serves, they detect subtle cues given away by their opponents’ positioning that are imperceptible to laypeople.

Second, deliberate practice assists individuals in absorbing and remembering vast amounts of knowledge in their fields of expertise.

Even computers cannot defeat some master chess players. In light of the fact that computers evaluate 200 million chess positions every second, how can that be possible?

Unlike a computer, a chess master has accumulated vast amounts of knowledge of the game through decades of deliberate practice. They have studied the great chess masters before them and know which choices produce which results without having to perform their own calculations. This allows them to win.

Lastly, deliberate practice can physically alter the brain and body of a person.

A study has shown that endurance runners’ hearts grow after years of intense training. In addition, athletes’ muscles also undergo changes as a result of years of practice.

Through deliberate practice, we can also change our brains. As an example, when children practice playing a musical instrument, the regions of their brains that interpret tones and control their fingers expand by assuming more brain space.

Lesson 6: Deliberate practice at an early age has clear benefits

Did you ever wonder why Einstein’s theory of relativity wasn’t created by a college physics student?

Physics is typically associated with new discoveries when we refer to “great achievements.”. The first step to making new discoveries is to understand all the existing laws and theories. You have to know a lot about the subject.

Therefore, making breakthroughs in fields with constantly changing knowledge becomes increasingly difficult. With time, fields like physics and business that are heavily knowledge-based require more and more study to fully comprehend concepts, making it harder to stay on the cutting edge of new discoveries.

One of the most notable pieces of evidence of this is the increasing age of Nobel Prize winners: the average age has risen by six years within a century! But why? In their fields, mastering the continuously expanding body of knowledge takes longer in order to reach the point where discoveries are possible.

Deliberate practice, therefore, offers several advantages that are not available to late starters.

Children and adolescents, first of all, do not have to deal with the time-consuming responsibilities of adulthood, such as work and family, so they can concentrate more on practicing.

Secondly, starting early gives you the advantage of a support network: family. While not all families provide their children with supportive and stimulating environments for developing skills, those that do can very much contribute to their children’s success.

In fact, research has shown that top performers tend to live in child-friendly environments, which means their parents believe in them and are willing to assist them.

Lastly, our mental faculties weaken as we age. Our ability to solve unfamiliar problems in our sixties takes about twice as long as it does in our twenties, illustrating yet again how important it is to start early.

Lesson 7: Eventually, motivation must become self-driven and develop over time

Being a world-class performer requires a significant amount of deliberate practice; without the right motivation, it would be impossible. But what motivates us?

Let’s examine the multiplier effect first. An advantage in one field can snowball into greater advantages in other fields – e.g., receiving more support and better coaching. Consider a baseball player who has a strong forearm and quick reflexes, and who takes pride in being one step ahead of his peers.

He could gain benefit from this satisfaction in a variety of ways: maybe he will be motivated to practice more, or perhaps he will be noticed by his coaches and offered the opportunity to play on a team with more professional training, thus further improving his skills.

A multiplier effect explains how the satisfaction you get from seeing yourself as superior in the eyes of others can motivate you to practice and improve, increasing your advantage.

There is a growing body of evidence that, to achieve success in any field – be it baseball or the arts – you must possess an “inner drive,” i.e., a desire to be good even without external rewards.

While world-class achievers are driven to improve, most of them weren’t born that way. Their progress was forced upon them.

A study of twenty-four highly acclaimed pianists revealed that they were forced to take piano lessons as children. Despite this, these performers said that they eventually became their own force – and that they were inspired by this passion. In fact, external motivators, such as forced lessons, can be highly effective at catalyzing inner drives at the early stages of learning.

Lesson 8: Choose your goals and practice the skills necessary to achieve them

The benefits of an early start cannot be reaped by travelling back in time. We can, however, still employ the principles of deliberate practice in order to attain our goals as adults.

Since achieving exceptional performance is such a demanding endeavor, you must be crystal clear about your goals and committed to achieving them even when the environment isn’t ideal.

Ted Williams practices until his hands bleed: he’s said to be baseball’s greatest hitter.

You won’t need to give yourself a heart attack in order to succeed, but you’ll need a lot of practice in order to reach the level of greatness.

You can only become a world-class baseball player if you know what you want: merely “liking” baseball won’t motivate you to put in the practice needed.

This type of dedication was exemplified by Benjamin Franklin. In spite of his Puritan upbringing, he was a diligent writer, writing both before and after his work days as a printer’s apprentice. As a result, he dedicated himself to becoming a great writer.

In order to improve, it is imperative that you identify the specific critical skills you must possess and then directly practice them. It involves practicing specific aspects over and over again rather than making only a few general runs through what you want to become better at.

Benjamin Franklin was not a great writer just because he wrote a lot of essays. Rather, he focused on improving those things that needed improving. He summarized and reformulated newspaper articles repeatedly in order to improve his syntax, and then compared the evolution of his sentences with the feedback to continue improving.

Final Summary

World-class performers are considered to have natural talents. Performance has virtually nothing to do with talent, as this book demonstrates. Performance at the highest level is created over a long period of time with deliberate practice, i.e., by focusing on the most critical aspects of a skill, practicing them repeatedly, and receiving quality feedback. 

You can improve in any field with deliberate practice if you have the right motivation.

Focus more on how you practice than how much time you spend practicing if you want to become great at your work. You need to develop a deliberate practice system that concentrates on the elements critical to your field and provides instant feedback in order to make the biggest improvements. 

If you want to improve your public speaking skills, you should analyze your speeches closely and look for ways to improve specific areas (such as clarity or eloquence), and solicit feedback from experts in the field.

Further Reading

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