Derek Sivers

Talent Is Overrated - by Geoff Colvin

Talent Is Overrated - by Geoff Colvin

ISBN: 1591842247
Date read: 2009-11-16
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Talent is not innate - it comes from thousands of hours of deliberate practice: focused improving of your shortcomings. That's it. If you can get past the first 20% of the book that just asks questions, the next 60% is quite good.

my notes

Bill Gates has said that if you took the twenty smartest people out of Microsoft it would be an insignificant company, and if you ask around the company what its core competency is, they don’t say anything about software. They say it’s hiring.

The ability to engage in cognitively complex forms of multivariate reasoning.

IQ is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, IQ predicts little or nothing about performance.

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt has been clear about what the company is looking for: someone who is externally focused, is a clear thinker, has imagination, is an inclusive leader, and is a confident expert. Those are behaviors, not traits.

He designed his practice to work on his specific needs.  Rice didn’t need to do everything well, just certain things. So he focused his practice work on exactly those requirements.

By age eighteen, the violinists in the first group had accumulated 7,410 hours of lifetime practice on average, versus 5,301 hours for violinists in the second group and 3,420 hours for those in the third group. All the differences were statistically significant.

“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by Anders Ericsson

The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

Deliberate practice can be applied in other domains, such as business or science, in which we almost never think about practicing.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining.
* - activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help
* - it can be repeated a lot
* - feedback on results is continuously available
* - it’s highly demanding mentally, or physically
* - it isn’t much fun.

I was designing my own practice activity, even though it’s clear that I’m completely unqualified to do so.

It’s almost always necessary for a teacher to design the activity best suited to improve an individual’s performance.

A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.

Without a clear, unbiased view of the subject’s performance, choosing the best practice activity will be impossible.

While the best methods of development are constantly changing, they’re always built around a central principle: They’re meant to stretch the individual beyond his or her current abilities.

Deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.

Great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s on to the next aspect.

High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.

Steve Kerr, former chief learning officer of Goldman Sachs and a highly respected researcher on leadership development.

Practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level. You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.

4-5 hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than 60-90 minutes.

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.

When we see great performers doing what they do, it strikes us that they’ve practiced for so long, and done it so many times, they can just do it automatically. But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically.

Great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice - avoiding automaticity. The essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do the things one cannot do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible.

Everyone in these studies is hearing the same things, but through years of practice, some are perceiving more. The relevance of these findings for business seems obvious. Specifically, we can abstract from the research a few ways, directly applicable in business, that top performers perceive more.  They understand the significance of indicators that average performers don’t even notice.

Sam Walton found an innovative way to gauge customer satisfaction. He realized that the best indicator of how happy his customers were was to measure how happy his employees were; the way managers treated the employees was the way employees would treat the customers.

Laura Rittenhouse, an unusual type of financial analyst, counts the number of times the word I occurs in annual letters to shareholders from corporate CEOs, contending that this and other evidence in the letters helps predict company performance (basic finding: Egomaniacs are bad news).

Much of the power of looking further ahead comes from the simple act of raising one’s gaze and getting a new perspective, and doing it not once or occasionally, but using practice principles to do it often and get better at it. When was the last time you, in your working role, participated in a deep discussion about the state of your business five years from now? How about fifteen years from now, including a look at the future of your business’s environment, competitors, regulators, and other factors? Such discussions rarely happen below the level of the CEO, yet the experience of excellent performers suggests they offer advantages for everyone.

There are plenty of companies, many of them in biotechnology or infotech, with no profits and no prospect of profits anytime soon, yet with considerable share prices. Investors are valuing these companies by looking years into the future.

The future always counts, and looking further into it - rationally - is always an advantage.

It’s a matter of seeing black versus seeing five shades of black, and it works in evaluating people, situations, proposals, performances, products, or anything else. In each case, seeing differences that others don’t see is another way of perceiving more.

Comparing world-class players with good club-level players. What made them better? They had more knowledge about their field.

Many companies work hard to give their top performers the widest possible knowledge by assigning them to many jobs that are different in nature and location - operating jobs, staff jobs, all around the world - and in this way the top performers have typically learned several, and sometimes all, of the most important parts of the business.

Endurance runners have larger than average hearts, an attribute that most of us see as one of the natural advantages with which they were blessed. But no, research has shown that their hearts grow after years of intensive training; when they stop training, their hearts revert toward normal size.

Because the demands of achieving exceptional performance are so great over so many years, no one has a prayer of meeting them without utter commitment. You’ve got to know what you want to do, not suspect it or be inclined toward it or be thinking about it.

Experienced masters in our field who can advise us on the skills and abilities we need to acquire next, and can give us feedback on how we’re doing.

Benjamin Franklin: He found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce. Making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence: a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.” Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.” Franklin identified the aspects of his performance that needed to be improved and found a way to stretch himself, the essential core of deliberate practice. Significantly, he did not try to become a better essay writer by sitting down and writing essays. Instead, like a top-ranked athlete or musician, he worked over and over on those specific aspects that needed improvement.

For spoken presentations: Watch a presentation that you consider especially well done and make notes of its various points; later, after you’ve forgotten most of it, use your notes to create a talk making the same points; deliver the talk and record it; then compare your video with the original.

Chess: Study a particular position and choose the move you would make, then compare it with the move chosen by the master; if they’re different, figure out why and which is better.

The chess model has been used widely in business education: the case method. Pioneered at the Harvard Business School, it is strongly analogous to chess practice: You’re presented with a problem, and your job is to figure out a solution. Real life being the way it is, you often won’t know whether the solution chosen by the case’s protagonist was the best one possible, or whether yours was any better. But the process of focusing on the problem and evaluating proposed solutions is powerfully instructive.

Cases: students at the Harvard Business School study more than five hundred of them during the two-year program.

Conditioning can also be practiced with new material. Analyze the basic ratios in an unfamiliar financial statement with pen and paper, even though you have software that could do it all with one click. Do a value-based analysis of a stock. Pencil-edit a magazine article. You won’t be learning new skills; you’ll be building the strengths that make all your skills possible.

Practice by yourself through the fast-growing world of business simulations. It’s quite amazing what’s available. Web-based or downloadable simulation games in marketing, stock trading, negotiating, corporate strategizing, and many other disciplines at several levels of sophistication are widely available.

The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome.

The best performers make the most specific, technique-oriented plans. They’re thinking of exactly, not vaguely, how to get to where they’re going.

When a customer raises a completely unexpected problem in a deal negotiation, an excellent businessperson can pause mentally and observe his or her 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?

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.

Make domain knowledge a direct objective rather than a byproduct of work. Set a goal of becoming an expert on your business.

If you know too much about a situation, a business, a field of study, then you can’t have the flash of insight that is available only to someone unburdened by a lifetime of immersion in the domain.

Too much experience within a field may restrict creativity because you know so well how things should be done that you are unable to escape to come up with new ideas.

High creative achievement and intrinsic motivation go together. Creative people are focused on the task (How can I solve this problem?) and not on themselves (What will solving this problem do for me?).