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Book review: Talent is over-rated: what really separates world-class performers from everybody else

by Geoff Hart

Geoff Colvin. 2010. New York, NY: Portfolio. [ISBN 978-1-59184-294-1. 234 pages, including index. US$16.00 (softcover).

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Book review: Talent is overrated: what really separates world-class performers from everyone else. Technical Communication 58(2):166–167.

One of life’s eternal questions is why some people perform so brilliantly. It’s tempting to assume they were born with a divine gift, since that would explain why prodigies are so rare in any field and would help us feel better about not being prodigious ourselves. Unfortunately, scientific evidence for such “gifts” is lacking, and the few gifts that have been demonstrated rarely explain exceptional performance. There are obvious exceptions. For example, some of us are born with physical gifts (a seven-foot basketball player will surpass a five-foot player of comparable skill and dedication), some of us lose initial gifts over time (I’ll never play NHL hockey because I lack a 20-year-old’s endurance), and there are unquestionably idiot savants who have a single supreme skill, such as the ability to perform complex mental calculations, yet do nothing else noteworthy. But there’s a growing body of evidence that anyone can excel if they’re willing to put in the necessary work—which means the right kind of work.

Superstars may have worked harder than everyone else, but the reason they stand above ordinary performers can’t be explained by hard work alone. Until recently, it was unclear why there were so few superstars. But the research of K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues over the last several decades has shed intense light on why some people excel, recently summarized in their extensive review of the psychological literature (The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Cambridge University Press, 2006). Since then, several books have attempted to popularize this thorny theoretical material, Talent being one of them. Does Colvin add anything to the familiar advice that “practice makes perfect”? Indeed he does, both skillfully and engagingly.

He presents overwhelming support for the claim that not all practice is created equal. Deliberate practice—intensely focused, often exhausting honing of one’s weakest skills, not mindless repetition—is what creates prodigies. Talent’s inspirational message, illustrated by copious examples, is that you can improve any skill through focused practice guided by a mentor who understands your individual needs and can help you work on them. This rationale is why we send our children to school: we believe that thinking skills are learned, not innate, and that with the right teacher, the education process will help our children learn those skills. Colvin also notes that we should never assume that because we’ve reached a plateau, we can’t progress further. By repeating the process of attaining mastery (identifying and honing key skills), we can continue improving throughout our career.

Colvin provides many examples that illustrate how to use the book’s principles, both personally and in an organization or team. Understanding how both we and our employers can encourage—or quash—excellence is knowledge each of us can use at work and in our daily lives, and that makes Colvin’s book a must-read.


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