Monday, April 13, 2009

Talent is Overrated: Book Review

A 'friend of AIM' suggested this book.

Why are some people – Tiger Woods, Warren Buffett, Yo-Yo Ma – so incredibly accomplished at what they do, while millions of others in those same fields never become very good?

Why are some people so extraordinarily creative and innovative? Why can some continue to perform great at ages when conventional wisdom would deem it impossible?

Those are the questions Geoff Colvin set out to answer in Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else.

American’s believe that the highest achievers possess extraordinary talent; this often isn’t so. High IQ is also not helpful in predicting achievement at the highest level. Most often, the highest performers start young and engage in “deliberate practice” (distinct from practice) for hours/day for decades. People who become top-level achievers are almost never child prodigies.

It typically takes 10,000 hours (about 10 years) of practice to become expert at anything. Proven true in arts, athletics, chess, etc. Starting young helps get to 10,000 practice hours earlier and others never catch up.

Many years of deliberate practice actually changes the body and the brain.
At the beginning, nearly all great performers were “forced” by their parents to practice. After about 10 years of practice, great performers internalize their desire to excel and external motivators become less important. Competition & positive recognition are the most compelling forms of external motivation.

In business, often the most successful leaders start out as the least impressive until their 30s or 40s because knowledge-based skills are so complex that what needs to be practiced for 10,000 hours is hard to define. Similarly, most scientists, authors, inventors, etc (higher complexity) also produce their best work after 20 years of devoted effort.

Standards of performance are rising rapidly owing to the global economy. As practice regimes become more refined, kids get better faster and excellence is achieved earlier and pushed further. (Ex: In 1878 Tchaikovsky finished a Violin Concerto that the premier violinist at the time said “was unplayable”. Today, every young violinist graduating from Juilliard can play it.)

Aging diminishes all facilities except those skills where excellence has been achieved and daily practice continues; these skills appear immune to aging.
In the debate about whether individual people or culture drives innovation, it’s more often corp culture that blocks innovation. Connecting people so they can talk about problems they’re working on encourages innovation.

As information becomes ubiquitous, corp strategies that “rely on customer ignorance as a profit center” are doomed. Turning great individuals into great teams requires well-designed practice activities, coaching, repetition, feedback, self-regulation, building knowledge, and shared mental models.