You Can Be Great At Almost Anything – According To Research

When I first read the excerpt from Geoff Colvin’s book ‘Talent Is Overrated’ in a Fortune issue I was so excited that I could barely sleep that night.

I was excited because it was not your typical self help manual where the author charts out life strategies based solely on his personal experience or worse based on what he claims is the golden bullet while he himself is living a life without results. This was a book excerpted in a most unlikely, place the hard nosed business magazine, Fortune. Further this was based on research, not the kind, where all kinds of crazy conclusions are extrapolated from studies that involve all of a less than a dozen participants. No this book was based on research conducted in the last 30 years in many places such as the INSEAD school of business. Finally the ideas outlined by this apply to every area of life not just the normal haunting spots of talent such as sports, music and so on.

The book starts by debunking the long held myths of our god given talents. If we have it, life is a breeze, if we don’t, well, let us just hang up our shoes and take it easy. Aw, it is not our fault we just lost out on the divine lottery of god given talents. The author does not just jump directly into demolishing the myths, he gives a fair hearing to the proponents of talent and then demolishes each argument by using logic and by citing startling facts revealed by decades of research. Yes he demolishes the myth of Tiger Woods (as in Tiger Woods before his sex scandal).

Geoff Colvin then explains why this finding is so promising to us. There is the obvious fact that our performance is now a matter of our choice and it is not a god given gift where if we don’t have well then too bad. Now what makes the message sink and why it so important for us to act on it urgently is due to a little bit of macro economics, history and the fast changing world of technology.

You see in the era of Adam Smith and Karl Marx the constraining factor on business was capital and labor. Access to capital was a key factor to economic success. The labor markets were local. The local jobs were best handled by local people. Then came the internet and cheap communication that changed the world. The job that could be done only by local people in Tulsa, OK now could be done by someone in Hyderabd, India or Manila, Philippines. Nothing it appeared was spared from the spread of globalization, from remote radiologists reading your MRI scans to remote journalists writing your local news! Employers suddenly found a global pool for hiring. A global pool with a frightening disparity in income. And employees found themselves in a market too tough to compete based solely on local availability. This chilling development is not going to stop no matter what happens. As of this writing, US companies are experiencing record growth in profits while at the same time unemployment continues to remain stubbornly high. It is now imperative for an employee to be great not just good to raise our performance to match the best in the world.

So what is the life changing idea proposed by Geoff Colvin in his book ‘Talent is Overrated’ – it is ‘Deliberate Practice’.

Now wait a minute you might say, what is so new about it. In fact we even have an idiom for it, “Practice makes perfect”. Exactly and Goeff addresses this head on. He cites research where the performance of experienced physicians was actually below that of  newbies when it came to diagnoses or experienced accountants who were no better than newbies at detecting corporate fraud. These are key skills that physicians and accounts are expected to have. You actually know instinctively that practice does not make perfect. You may have been practicing something for years such as golf, or making presentations etc. After the initial bout of learning you go into a rut and your performance stays static.

Deliberate practice Geoff states is extremely unpleasant. No wonder so few do it and therefore so few us are great at what we do. It is important to know what ‘deliberate practice’ is and what it is not. Geoff lists 4 elements:

- It is designed specifically to improve performance. Noel Tichy a professor at University of Michigan likes to draw three concentric circles. The inner is our comfort zone, the middle one is our learning zone and the outer one is our panic zone. By focussing on our learning zone we achieve progress. Bad luck for the solitary types, an important piece of this element is having a teacher. No matter how good we think we are it is worth putting money down on a good coach. Hey the best in the world still do.

- It can be repeated a lot.

- Feedback on results is continuously available.

- It is highly demanding mentally.

- It is not much fun. Those in the ‘no pain no gain’ camp should rejoice at this.

Inspite of the reams of research quoted in the book, inspite of the repeated and sometimes tedious use of deductive logic I was most struck by the story of Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian educational psychologist.

Laszlo was so convinced that peak performance was developed and not inherited he decided to make his own personal life a laboratory to test. He married a Ukranian woman and once their first born, Susan, reached 4 years dedicated their working lives to teaching her chess.  By the time Susan was 19 nineteen years old she became a national hero defeating the Soviets for the first time in Hungary’s history. At age 21 she became the first female grandmaster.

Neither Laszlo nor his wife were chess masters of any renown.

No more excuses…greatness, it turns out is in your own hands. What are you going to do about it now?


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