Geoff Colvin, Fortune’s senior editor at large, is one of America’s most respected journalists. In this book about talent and excellent performers called Talent is Overrated, he investigates what separates great performers from those who never make it. If you have read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a lot of the ideas will sound familiar to you, but he goes into far more depth and cites many original research studies. He also discusses the cases of music prodigy Mozart and golf prodigy Tiger Woods to make his case that no world-class performer has been able to become one without at least 10 to 20 years of intensive practice.
If you have read my recent post The Gifted Myth, you may understand that this book is music to my ears. I heard about it on the BrillKids forum a few days back, downloaded it on my kindle and read it in one go. It’s very instructive and, best of all, goes in-depth about what anyone can do to become a high performer. The bad news: it’s hard work (surprise!). He advocates what he calls continuous deliberate practice, which is understood to be practice focused on those aspects most essential to performance that need improvement (rather than just practicing what one can already do). It also helps to receive expert feedback continuously. Looking at the family environments of high performers, he also notes that they were very child-centred, rearranging life around the needs of the child in order to support their progress (if you’ve read Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, you get the idea – driving three hours to access the best violin teacher and the like, or giving up your career to homeschool your children).
One interesting case he brings forward is that there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of talent, and that if talent exists, it is irrelevant. Talent is supposed to be the ability to pick things up faster and reach higher levels of performance, but even though this might be noticed at the very outset (someone might be quicker picking up basic piano playing or maths skills), in the long run, there are no top performers who haven’t put in thousands of hours and year and years of hard practice. When they looked at professional musicians and those who had to give up a musical career due to lack of success, the only thing that separated them was cumulative lifetime hours of practice, nothing else.
He specifically dedicates a chapter at the end to early learning and makes a very strong case for it. Especially now that humanity has accumulated more and more knowledge, starting early in order to master a domain at some point and make a contribution to it before family obligations take over, it is vital to start as early as possible and waste no time (and this is particularly relevant for women). My only word of caution if you are interested in early learning is that, coming from the Fortune Magazine, there are many chapters on success in the business world and how the principles can be applied in organisations. Though relevant, I didn’t find those part as interesting and couldn’t learn much for the purpose of my little “genius experiment”. But overall, it’s a great read and I highly recommend it for those needing ammunition for early learning critics!