If you ask regular folks to explain how the great figures of art, music, business, athletics and science acquired their gifts, they are bound to say that God or nature gave these stars an almost unnatural level of talent and skill. Not so Geoff Colvin. The American author and journalist rejects the popular notion that the genius of a Tiger Woods, a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartor a Warren Buffettis inborn uniquely to only a few individuals.
Colvin cites research that refutes the value of precocious, innate ability and he provides numerous examples of the intensely hard work that high achievement demands, showing that great performance is less reliant on talent than you might assume. Mozart and Woods, for example, were both prodigies, but their accomplishments weren’t handed to them on silver platters. They both practised painstakingly from childhood. Directed, focused work since boyhood also features strongly in Buffett’s biography. He began earning and investing before his teens.
For Colvin, this evidence suggests reconsidering the idea of inborn talent and accepting a more complex equation for genius that includes other factors of varying importance. Colvin refers to a 1992 study that sorted 257 music students by instrument, age, gender and income. Researchers asked the students about their musical precociousness, how much they practised and which of the nine standard levels of musical performance they had achieved at school. The researchers found no profound or conclusive measurement of early musical ability that correlated with top musical performance. However, they did find that the top students practised two hours a day versus 15 minutes of practise a day by the lowest performing students.
In terms of excellent performance, Colvin argues, sharp focus, hard work and a strong memory matter most. Can normal people groom such abilities? Indeed. For example, though you can’t grow an extra foot taller to play professional basketball, you can build more kinds of skills and add more capabilities than you probably believe. However, that does require a very special kind of dedication and hard work, which Colvin calls “deliberate practise”.
This level of effort is based on clear objectives, thorough analysis, sharp feedback and layered, systematic work. Think about how people practise a skill-based activity they care about, such as golf. Do they just swing their drivers as hard as they can? That isn’t what Woods does. He carefully analyses the elements of his swing and designs deliberate drills to improve those elements. He practises different skills away from his clubs to build the strength, flexibility and stamina he needs to play golf at his transcendent level.
According to Colvin, deliberate practise enables you to perceive, know and remember more about your field. Rather than just seeing your performance problems, you’ll see them in context with all their subtleties. This lets you anticipate your actions and make the best choices.
Deliberate practise builds your skills in each layer of great performance, so you are more expert than your competitors because you have worked harder to learn. Experience lets you see internal structures and retain more information about your work. High performance and strong memory go together because you can use past events and details to inform your present decisions.
getAbstract finds that Colvin makes his case clearly and convincingly. He shows readers how to use hard work and deliberate practise to improve their skills. Colvin admits that the severe time and effort demanded for true, deliberate practise are so painful that only a few people master it, but he also argues that you can benefit from understanding the nature of great performance. Perhaps, he says, the real gift of genius is the capacity for determined practise. You can improve your ability to create and innovate once you accept that even talent isn’t a free ticket to great performance. It takes work. But if you really desire it, and you’re willing to sweat for it, higher performance awaits.
Rolf Dobelli is chairman of getAbstract.