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Why talent is overrated

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

6) Before the work. Self-regulation begins with setting goals - not big, life-directing goals, but more immediate goals for what you're going to be doing today. In the research, the poorest performers don't set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome - win the order; get the new project proposal done. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.

For example, instead of just winning the order, their goal might be to focus especially hard on discerning the customer's unstated needs. You can see how this is strongly analogous to the first step of deliberate practice. The best performers are focused on how they could get better at some specific element of the work, just as a pianist may focus on improving a particular passage.

With a goal set, the next step is planning how to reach it. Again, the best performers make the most specific, technique-oriented plans. They're thinking exactly, not vaguely, of how to get where they're going. So if their goal is discerning the customer's unstated needs, their plan for achieving it on that day may be to listen for certain key words the customer might use, or to ask specific questions to bring out the customer's crucial issues.

7) During the work. The most important self-regulatory skill that top performers in every field use during their work is self-observation. For example, ordinary endurance runners in a race tend to think about anything other than what they're doing; it's painful, after all, and they want to take their minds off it. Elite runners, by contrast, focus intensely on themselves. Among other things, they count their breaths and simultaneously count their strides in order to maintain certain ratios.

Even in purely mental work, the best performers observe themselves closely. They are able to monitor what is happening in their own minds and ask how it's going. Researchers call this metacognition - knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it's an established part of their routine.

Metacognition is important because situations change as they play out. Apart from its role in finding opportunities for practice, it plays a valuable part in helping top performers adapt to changing conditions. When a customer raises a completely unexpected problem in a deal negotiation, an excellent businessperson can pause mentally and observe his own mental processes as if from outside: Have I fully understood what's really behind this objection? Am I angry? Am I being hijacked by my emotions? Do I need a different strategy here? What should it be?

8) After the work. Practice activities are worthless without useful feedback about the results. These must be self-evaluations; since the practice activities took place in our own minds, only we can know fully what we were attempting or judge how it turned out. Excellent performers judge themselves differently than most people do. They're more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay.

By contrast, the best performers judge themselves against a standard that's relevant for what they're trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare it with the performance of competitors they're facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare it with the best known performance by anyone in the field.

Any of those can make sense; the key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Research confirms what common sense tells us, that too high a standard is discouraging and not very instructive, while too low a standard produces no advancement.

The final element of the post-work phase is affected by all the others and affects them in turn. You've been through some kind of work experience - a meeting with your team, a trading session, a quarterly budget review, a customer visit. You've evaluated how it went. Now, how do you respond?

Odds are strong that the experience wasn't perfect; in fact, parts of it may have been unpleasant. In those cases, excellent performers respond by adapting the way they act, while average performers respond by avoiding those situations in the future. That stands to reason. Since excellent performers went through a sharply different process from the beginning, they can make good guesses about how to adapt. That is, their ideas for how to perform better next time are likely to work. So it's hardly surprising that they are more likely than average performers to repeat the experience rather than avoid it.

But where does the cycle start? Why do certain people put themselves through the years of intensive daily work that eventually makes them world-class great? This is the deepest question about great performance, and the researchers do not offer us a complete answer. We've reached the point where we must proceed by looking in the only place we have left: within ourselves. The answers depend on your response to two basic questions: What do you really want? And what do you really believe?

What you want - really, deeply want - is fundamental because deliberate practice is an investment: The costs come now, the benefits later. The more you want something, the easier it will be for you to sustain the needed effort until the payoff starts to arrive. But if you're pursuing something that you don't truly want and are competing against others whose desire is deep, you can guess the outcome.

The second question is more profound. What do you really believe? Do you believe that you have a choice in this matter? Do you believe that if you do the work, and do it with intense focus for years on end, your performance will eventually reach the highest levels? If you believe that, then there's a chance you will do the work and achieve great performance. But if you believe that your performance is forever limited by your lack of a specific innate gift, then there's no chance at all that you will do the work. What you really believe about the source of great performance thus becomes the foundation of all you will ever achieve.

Such beliefs can be extremely deep-seated. Regardless of where our beliefs in this matter originated, however, we all have the opportunity to base them on the evidence of reality. The evidence offers no easy assurances. It shows that the price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high. Maybe it's inevitable that not many people will choose to pay it. But the evidence shows also that by understanding how a few become great, all can become better.

Tell us what you think: Is talent overrated? Or, with the right training, can people be turned into prodigies? Join the reader discussion here. To top of page

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