New Delhi: In his latest book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Fortune magazine’s editor-at-large Geoff Colvin argues that talent is overrated. People aren’t born with any predilections to greatness; instead, they earn it. Colvin talks to Mint about why intelligence isn’t everything, what “practice” really means, and how companies and individuals can take a page out of the Tiger Woods playbook.
A specific and inborn special ability—that is an ability to play golf, or sing a song, or sell cars, or anything else that you are born with. Most people do believe that the greatest performers in any domain came into this world with a special ability, a one-in-a-million ability to do this particular thing.
Key point: Great performers are specific about what they’re trying to do. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
You turn to the likes of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Tiger Woods to argue this isn’t true.
An awful lot of people will say, look, what you’re saying may sound reasonable, but you cannot explain Tiger Woods or Mozart without talent. So I did the research. What it turns out is that Tiger Woods and Mozart are excellent examples of what the researchers have been saying.
So, the key is practice? But you give an example of a study that found senior auditors were not much better at spotting corporate fraud than rookie auditors.
Doing more work doesn’t necessarily make a person better. Now this sounds funny, but here’s the point. We’re all surrounded by hard-working people, people who have worked hard for 30 years. They’re not, frankly, world-class at whatever they do. It isn’t just hard work, it’s a particular type of hard work.
You call this the difference between “practice” and “deliberate practice”.
The key to the whole thing, is hard work at a very specific activity. It is a thing unto itself, it isn’t work, and it isn’t play, it is a separate thing. An activity designed to improve performance, it pushes you just past what you currently do. It can be repeated at high volume, and feedback is continuously available.
The greatest performers in every field are doing that, and they’re doing that for hours a day, every day, for years on end. And that’s what they all have in common.
Take a sales agent, for example. How would he or she go about deliberate practice?
Think ahead of time, “what do I want to do better?” Not just, “I want to close the sale”, but think, “on this sales call, I want to understand the client’s business issues better”.
And during the sales call?
While you are doing it, you are also standing outside yourself and observing, “okay, how is it going, has something changed, do I need to adapt?”
When you leave, you think, “how did I do?” You don’t just say generally, “well I did great, or I did lousy”. You say, “okay, I understood this one concern, but there was something else, now that I think about it, there was something else he said that I should have picked up on but I didn’t, so next time I’m going to be extra-sensitive to that kind of comment”.
So, the key here is to be specific?
Average performers think in general terms. Great performers are very specific about what they are trying to do, and very specific about how it went.
There’s an interesting example of a sales manager who rated his most intelligent agents as the best, but that wasn’t really the case.
It shows how deeply held is the belief that the smartest people must be the best. There was a correlation between intelligence and how the manager rated the person, but there was no correlation between intelligence and actual sales performance.
Then how important is intelligence?
Intelligence isn’t as important as most people think. There are international masters in chess with an IQ below 100—below average. What they have isn’t incredible IQ, but an incredible ability to play chess, which they developed over many years.
You mention that having a lot of information is key. What does this mean for employees in a company?
The idea is for people to create what’s called a mental model of the business, meaning you have in your head, how all the forces affecting the business are connected. If there’s a drop in interest rates, you know how that will work its way through the whole industry, what it will do to your business, what it will do to your competitor’s. Within organizations, having a shared mental model turns out to be very important.