Talent Is Overrated

"By understanding how a few become great, anyone can become better."

- Talent is Overrated, page 206

Geoff Colvin, senior editor at Forbes magazine, gives plenty of insight into the difference between top performers and average performers, and his answer isn’t exactly what you’d think it would be.

One typical thought when viewing the work of a master artist, or watching a professional athlete or musician perform, is that these people must have some inborn talent. We think back to our own experiences learning to draw, play sports, or pick a guitar and realize they have a divine gift, they were meant to do what they’re doing… they have more talent than us.

Colvin strikes this notion of talent down, reviewing countless examples of the hard work and years of practice that the top performers put themselves through, from Mozart to Tiger Woods. But it isn’t just hard work and logging the hours. Colvin reviews the research on a particular type of work, deliberate practice, and shows us how we can implement the principles of deliberate practice in our own lives.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Deliberate vs Mindless Practice

"It (talent) explains why great performers seem to do effortlessly certain things that most of us can’t imagine doing at all…why extraordinary performers are so rare; god-given talents are presumably not handed out willy-nilly… This explanation has the additional advantage of helping most of us come to somewhat melancholy terms with our own performance."
- Talent is Overrated, page 3

There should be no doubt that great performance requires hard work. But we all know individuals who work exceedingly hard and never succeed. The difference between hard work and getting nowhere versus hard work leading to great performance is the difference between mindlessly practicing (driving range, anyone?) and deliberately practicing skills that are just beyond your current capabilities in a manner that is well-designed and conducive to growth.

Colvin delivers a step-by-step plan on how we can implement the principles of deliberate practice into our lives and become masters in our chosen fields. The catch—and there is a catch—it won’t be easy. But that may just be a good thing.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Defining Deliberate Practice

"Identifying the learning zone and then forcing oneself to stay continually in it as it changes are the first and most important characteristics of deliberate practice."
- Talent is Overrated, page 69

When I think of practicing golf, I think of going to the driving range to hit a bucket of balls, heading to the putting green for 20 minutes of putting practice, and heading home. It is easy and mindless.

When Tiger Woods thinks of practice, well, it’s entirely different. Tiger focuses in on  specific skills that he needs to develop (hitting a buried bunker shot or cutting a ball underneath a series of trees yet flying it over a lake 50 yards out), even though he may only need to make that shot once a year. Because he has repeatedly practiced those shots, when the time comes, he’ll be able to make the shot when it counts.

Deliberate practice is activity designed to improve performance. You should work with a teacher or coach to figure out what activities you need to improve. It can (and should) be repeated a lot. Feedback is continuously available. Deliberate practice is mentally taxing, to the point where practicing more than 4-5 hours per day is nearly impossible. And it isn’t very fun.

Deliberate practice requires sacrifice and hard work, but if we choose to make the sacrifice, we can be among the top performers in our field, as most people prefer not to sacrifice and claim that bad luck, or bad genes, are the reason why they are stuck in life.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Applying the Principles of Deliberate Practice

"Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration."
- Talent Is Overrated, page 70

Colvin provides a road map for deliberate practice for those who are looking to up their performance in any field. It begins on knowing what field you are willing to devote your time and effort to. Then comes the practice. Colvin suggests three different models of practice to follow: music, chess, and sports.

The music model is an analytical approach. If, for example, you were preparing a presentation, this model suggests focusing on the purpose of each part and practicing multiple times to develop the best method of presentation.

The chess model of practice involves looking at past games of masters, comparing moves you would make to the moves they made. In business, we can use the chess model by reading case studies and articles, making note of potential solutions to real-world business problems.

The sports model involves conditioning, going back to the basics of your field to sharpen your saw, and developing specific skills with simulation or practice.

You must also find a way to practice in the work, through choosing which tasks to focus on, developing new methods to more effectively complete those tasks, and reviewing the progress you have made at the end of the day.


When I played basketball, I had a coach that would say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” With Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, I finally get the point.

In the comments below, let us know…

What deliberate practice skills have you applied to your life?  What type of impact did this make?

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William Zahn

ABOUT William Zahn

WHO ARE YOU? I am a marketing professor and scholar who, in addition to education, is interested in writing and consulting. I am married with our first child on the way...
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