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Why talent is overrated

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

All we can say for the moment is that no specific genes identifying particular talents have been found. It's possible that they will be; scientists could yet find the piano-playing gene or investing gene or accounting gene. But they haven't so far, and doing so could be a long shot. The most one could say is that if genes exert any influence, it would seem to be much less than the whole explanation for achieving the highest levels of performance.

So if specific, inborn talent doesn't explain high achievement, what does? Researchers have converged on an answer. It's something they call "deliberate practice," but watch out - it isn't what most of us think of as practice, nor does it boil down to a simplistic practice-makes-perfect explanation.

It isn't just hard work, either. Deliberate practice is a specific and unique kind of activity, neither work nor play. It's characterized by several elements that together form a powerful whole. The greatest performers have consistently combined these elements, sometimes just by luck.

But now that researchers have decoded the pattern, the path to top performance is becoming much more accessible. The elements of deliberate practice are each worth examining:

1) Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance. The key word is "designed." The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don't do it in the activities we think of as practice. At the driving range or at the piano, most of us are just doing what we've done before and hoping to maintain the level of performance that we probably reached long ago.

By contrast, deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them. Tiger Woods - intensely applying this principle, which is no secret among pro golfers - has been seen to drop golf balls into a sand trap and step on them, then practice shots from that near-impossible lie.

The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they're improved; then it's on to the next aspect. In most fields, years of study have produced a body of knowledge about how performance is developed and improved, and full-time teachers generally possess that knowledge.

At least in the early going, therefore, and sometimes long after, it's almost always necessary for a teacher to design the activity best suited to improve an individual's performance. It's striking how many great performers had fathers who started designing their practice activities at early ages; Tiger, Picasso, and Mozart are perfect examples.

So is the New York Giants' Super Bowl MVP quarterback, Eli Manning, whose father, Archie, was a successful NFL quarterback. Archie was always ready with instruction for Eli (and for his brother Peyton, Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts). Eli always seemed clear that intense practice was key. According to a new biography, Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, "Eli never bought into the gene theory."

In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, science, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks he's outgrown the benefits of a teacher's help should at least question that view. There's a reason the world's best golfers still go to teachers.

2) Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot. High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. Tiger Woods may face that buried lie in the sand only two or three times in a season, and if those were his only opportunities to work on that shot, he'd blow it just as you and I do.

Repeating a specific activity over and over is what people usually mean by practice, yet it isn't especially effective. Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity just beyond our current abilities. The other is the amount of repetition.

Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent. Ted Williams, baseball's greatest hitter, would practice hitting until his hands bled. Pete Maravich, whose college basketball records still stand after more than 30 years, would go to the gym when it opened in the morning and shoot baskets until it closed at night.

3) Feedback on results is continuously available. Obvious, yet not nearly as simple as it might seem, especially when results require interpretation. You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn't what counts. Or you may believe you played that bar of the Brahms violin concerto perfectly, but can you really trust your own judgment? In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.

4) It's highly demanding mentally. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it "deliberate," as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one's hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone's mental abilities.

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