"Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else" by Geoff Colvin

A short, fast, enjoyable read. The basic arguments of the book, all of which I found more or less compelling, if not entirely groundbreaking:

  • There is very little evidence of "innate talent" in most fields, such as chess, music, mathematics, or business. (In sports, there is obviously some influence of body type; the book argues that this is less profound than you might think, although it's obviously important.)

  • The way to get good at something is to practice it. The way to get very good is to practice it a lot.

  • "General intelligence" is not well correlated with being world-class.

  • The kind of practice that actually helps is "deliberate practice", which is practice that focusses on specifics, has short direct feedback cycles, and is at the boundaries of current performance. Deliberate practice is difficult and mentally demanding. Teachers are often crucial in designing deliberate practice regimes, especially in the early stages.

  • Many so-called "geniuses" (Mozart and Tiger Woods are studied in some detail) who have exhibited astonishing skill at what seem to be astonishingly young ages are often touted as having innate skills, but they are in fact the product of precisely this sort of deliberate practice.

  • It takes about ten years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class. This is a rule of thumb. There is evidence that in the current world, it takes longer than that in the sciences.

  • In some fields such as music or athletics, it is very important to start young, because the effect of practice compounds over time and once adolesence ends, other demands have a very strong tendency to interfere if the practice isn't central to someone's life. A study examined music students in three different departments: one in which the students could go on to become international soloists, a second in which they went on to become orchestra players, and a third in which they went on to become teachers. The only variables that had any real explanatory power for dividing these groups were how many hours they practiced, and how many hours they had practiced before turning 18.

  • In business it is less important to start young, primarily because very few people are trained to be business leaders from an early age. The book briefly examines the wisdom of this, and suggests that this is likely to start happening more.

  • At any stage of life and for nearly any skill, deliberate practice is a key to increasing performance.

  • Most organizations and businesses are very bad at encouraging deliberate practice. (In general, I found the section on organizations to be the weakest, although I will have to think about it some more).

  • To become world-class, achievement has to be primarily intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated. However, extrinsic motivation is frequently a good way to start children on a path --- they'll either get into it or they won't. Additionally, the line between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations is blurry: specific, constructive feedback is both at once, and many child prodigies start out of a desire to spend time with or imitate their parents.

  • To become world-class takes a huge amount of sacrifice, and there's nothing intrinsically right or wrong about making this sacrifice. It's a cost/benefit tradeoff. In general, the older you are, the greater the costs relative to the benefits.

I'm still digesting the implications for my own life. I think my practice often tends to by nature by somewhat deliberate, although I could (and will try to) apply this principle more consistently.

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