Jim Citrin, Leadership by Example; Talent is Overrated

Jim Citrin, Leadership by Example
Talent is Overrated

by Jim Citrin
Posted on Friday, November 21, 2008, 12:00AM
If you listened to the mellifluous President-Elect Obama deliver his acceptance speech at Grant Park on November 4th, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that his oratorical gift was naturally endowed. So too with Tiger Woods, who famously has been honing his apparently innate gift for golf since he outputted Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show at age two. Similarly, in describing his investment prowess Warren Buffett has oft been quoted as saying that he “was born to allocate capital.”

We all believe that the world’s best performers are different than us. And that perhaps unfortunately is true. However, you might be surprised at exactly how they are different and what truly accounts for their success. Conventional wisdom would explain that the super-human performers came into the world with a gift for doing exactly what they ended up doing and that they had the good fortune to discover their gift early in life. But as Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor at Large with Fortune Magazine puts forth in his ground-breaking new book, Talent is Overrated, it turns out that “great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected.”

In my mind, Talent is Overrated has the three key elements that make a business book great: 1) It poses one important and specific question, 2) The question is answered authoritatively, with both facts and compelling examples and 3) The answer is counterintuitive. Put any of the best business books through this sieve — Good to Great, In Search of Excellence, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Tipping Point — and they will pass this tripartite test.

Summary of the Book’s Key Points:

Contrary to popular belief, what makes certain people great is not inborn talent. Rather, it is something called “deliberate practice,” a sustained, often life-long, period of purposeful effort designed to improve performance in a specific domain. This turns out to be just as true in business as it is in sports, music, medicine, chess, science, and mathematics.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements: It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; and it’s highly demanding mentally. It is far different than the general notion of “practice makes perfect.” Instead of repeating a task over and over again in your comfort zone, deliberate practice requires that you identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be advanced and then work intently on them.

Once a highly specific capability is improved, whether it’s mastering a passage from a demanding music composition, delivering an investment recommendation in a staff meeting, or answering a key question in a job interview, then it’s on to the next step. Top performers get the help of coaches or mentors to select and design the best practice activity, repeat them to a stultifying degree, adjust their techniques based on objective feedback, and concentrate so intensely on their efforts that it strains their mental abilities.

If you are motivated to achieve, the fact that deliberate practice is extremely difficult is actually good news. Why? Most people don’t do it or stick with it, so your commitment to do so will distinguish you. What makes deliberate practice so powerful is that it pushes you beyond what you can currently do and enables you perceive more, to know more, and to remember more than most other people.

Excellent performers perceive more by developing better and faster understanding of what they see. This is evidenced by the best typists seeing more words on a page than others and expert radiologists detecting subtle but life-threatening issues from x-ray readings that elude medical residents. Highly trained pilots are twice as good as new pilots at sorting through the cacophony of air traffic control; and in business and finance, the best performers understand the significance of particular information and data that average performers don’t even notice.

Great performers in every realm also recall more. Jack Nicklaus could reportedly remember every shot he had hit in every tournament. The best direct marketers remember the results of every campaign and which specific variables caused the largest movements in response rates.

At the extreme, the effects of deliberate practice actually change the body and the brain. Endurance runners for example have larger than average hearts. But they weren’t born that way; their hearts grew only after years of training. When they stop training their hearts revert toward normal size. When kids start practicing a musical instrument, their brains develop differently. Brain regions that hear tones and control fingers garner more territory. London taxi drivers, who train rigorously for two years on average, have been found to have larger areas of the brain where spatial navigation is governed. It is significant that the process by which the brain changes is very slow and requires many years of intensive work. Activities need to be replicated thousands and in some cases millions of times for the “rewiring” of the brain to take effect.

The fact is that great performers are different from everybody else. But the key points to recognize are, one that they didn’t start out that way, and two, that the transformations didn’t happen by themselves.

Colvin Speaks

In my interview with Colvin, he said “The heart of the matter is that this is demanding stuff. To excel, you have to pursue these activities at length and with intensity.” He added that it’s difficult to sustain the effort in something if you’re continually doing a cost-benefit analysis. “You need to look deeply into yourself and select something you will find rewarding for its own sake to which to devote yourself.” Of course, it’s relatively straightforward to do this if you have a deep passion for an activity; but how do you discover it when it’s not obvious? “You may not have the passion a priori,” Colvin said, “but as you pursue an endeavor with focus it will often develop.”

I asked Colvin how he is personally applying the principles from the book. In his work, which involves writing and speaking, Colvin is thinking much more specifically about the core elements of great performance and how each can be improved. For example, he cites the use of story in his articles. “It’s much more effective to show rather than to tell the reader something important. I now review my writing and ask myself, ‘Am I telling or showing? How can I show more?'” He is also seeking feedback of editors and mentors much more than he has in the past. He advises you to find someone in your organization that you respect and know well enough to solicit genuine feedback and then focus on improving that which is most important.

Outside of work Colvin is applying his learning in an entirely different way – moving away from great performance. “I’ve changed my outlook when I play golf,” he said. “I now understand the reality of where excellence comes from and know that I will never be world-class (he’s a single-digit handicap). I can stop deluding myself which is actually quite liberating and have much more fun out there.”

The implications of Talent is Overrated are important and actionable. For your career, the principles are essential because the standards of performance in business will continue to rise relentlessly driven by the power of information technology and the fact that you may well be competing in (and for!) your job with other workers around the world. Beyond your career, however, the book is incredibly exciting if your life is your work. It will show you how to maximize what you’ve got and what you can accomplish. There are also profound insights about how parents can create a home environment that encourages children to excel and about how great performance can be achieved and sustained late into life.

Colvin brings to life deliberate practice with a wide array of examples. He takes the reader deeply behind the common knowledge of how Tiger Woods, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bobby Fischer and other “child prodigies” really became great. We see the true genius behind other renowned performers, such as Chris Rock as a stand-up comedian, Jerry Rice as the best receiver in NFL history, and Benjamin Franklin as an essayist. Colvin also convincingly draws on in-depth research on large groups of violinists, mathematicians, and other groups of anonymous high achievers. In fact, much of Colvin’s research underpinning is drawn from the leading expert on great performance, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, whose work over the past thirty years has set the standard in the field.

If you are motivated to devote yourself to becoming a great performer at work or in an avocation, Talent is Overrated will show you how to focus on an area and develop and pursue a disciplined regimen of deliberate practice. Doing this over the long term will lead you further than you may have ever hoped or dreamed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *