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Why talent is overrated

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large
Last Updated: October 21, 2008: 4:44 PM ET

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. Nathan Milstein, one of the 20th century's greatest violinists, was a student of the famous teacher Leopold Auer. As the story goes, Milstein asked Auer if he was practicing enough. Auer responded, "Practice with your fingers, and you need all day. Practice with your mind, and you will do as much in 1-1/2 hours." What Auer didn't add is that it's a good thing 1-1/2 hours are enough, because if you're truly practicing with your mind, you couldn't possibly keep it up all day.

5) It's hard. This follows inescapably from the other characteristics of deliberate practice, which could be described as a recipe for not having fun. Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we're good at, we insistently seek out what we're not good at.

Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see - or get others to tell us - exactly what still isn't right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we've just done. We continue that process until we're mentally exhausted.

If it seems a bit depressing that the most important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: It must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and no one could distinguish the best from the rest.

The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won't do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.

If you work in the careers where the concept of deliberate practice is most deeply entrenched - sports and music - you're probably thinking that the researchers have explained and elaborated on ideas that many people in your world have understood for a long time.

But if you're among the far more numerous people who make a living in business-related fields, you're probably thinking, This is absolutely nothing like work! In fact, life at most companies seems ingeniously designed to defeat all the principles of deliberate practice.

Most fundamentally, what we generally do at work is directly opposed to the first principle: It isn't designed by anyone to make us better at anything. Usually it isn't designed at all: We are just given an objective that's necessary to meeting the employer's goals and then expected to get on with it.

From the limited, short-term perspective of many employers, this is completely justified. We weren't hired so we could spend time improving our own abilities; we were hired to produce results. While deliberate practice demands that we push ourselves to the point where we break down and then develop a solution, in our business lives the cost of mistakes is often high. Every incentive urges us to stick with what's safe and reliable - which ensures that we won't improve.

Continuous feedback? At most companies that is a travesty, consisting of an annual performance review dreaded by the person delivering it and the one receiving it. Even if it's well done, it cannot be very effective. Telling someone what he did well or poorly on a task he completed 11 months ago is just not helpful.

You could say that work, like deliberate practice, is often mentally demanding and tiring. But that's typically not because of the intense focus and concentration involved. Rather, it's more often a result of long hours cranking out what we already know how to do. And if we're exhausted from that, the prospect of spending additional hours on genuine deliberate practice activities may seem too miserable to contemplate.

Bottom line, at most companies: The fundamentals of fostering great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored. Of course that means the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge. A few companies realize that. They embed mentoring and coaching in the culture, develop employees' careers through carefully chosen growth assignments, and increasingly put people through high-fidelity simulations, among other steps.

But maybe you don't work in one of these organizations, and maybe you're not in a position to change your company's culture and way of operating. How can you apply the principles of great performance on your own? The opportunities are far more available than we usually realize, even in environments where it's tough to take practice time away from real work.

Among them are well-established methods for practicing in the work itself. And they're all done in your head. Researchers call those activities self-regulation. To be most effective, it must be something you do before, during, and after the work activity itself.

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