Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Talent is overrated by Geoff Colvin

“Ambitious Parents who are currently playing baby Mozart video for their kids would be disappointed to learn that Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard” says Geoff.  He is off to a dramatic start by taking Mozart and Tiger Woods as examples. 

In fact, if you have a convincing self explanation as to why you didn't make it to the world class in a given area, don’t ever come near this book – it simply destroys all such explanations. There is no question between “nature” versus “nurture” – it is nurture all the way. The case for innate talent is weak if such a thing exists at all avers author. I found it hard to swallow because it deprives all the comfortable explanations you can have otherwise. He also talks about 10,000 hours rule and deliberate practice.  If you have learnt stories during childhood that are firmly implanted in memory like for example,  Archimedes running out bath tub after his “displacement of water insight” or extempore lecture of Abraham Lincoln - his Gettysburg’s address – you better be ready to re-format them. They are far from truth – I don’t mean the insight or message respectively but the zero-time preparation part of the story.  In short,whatever your volition is, all you need to have is the rage to master by means of “deliberate practice”.

Let me summarize some of the key points of Geoff as I have understood (not exhaustive).

1.   One need not have to have an IQ that is off the charts!
Geoff observes, “Some chess grand masters have less than average IQ and some of the top notch scrabble players score average or below average in verbal ability tests”. This kind of information gives an uneasy satisfaction especially if you are a lousy scrabble player like me. Point is that you can excel only in a narrow field – and to excel you have no choice but to exert for a very long time. 

2.   One does not require XXXL level memory
He debunks this view also. Memory capabilities are very specific and can be acquired. I will grudgingly agree but then, it takes one beautiful explanation out of your hands – too bad. He quotes one of the chess masters who would play blindfolded and win many of such games but will forget his suitcase in the conference room. He talks about “memory chunk” theory which is gaining traction anyway.

3.    More knowledge is a friend – not an enemy.
This is a little unfair but seems right. The more knowledge you acquire and more specialized you become, if anything, it only adds to your advantage. It will never become a burden. He makes an emphatic point about that. It is because there is a school of thought that believes in order to be creative more knowledge could become a bane rather than a boon. 
He quotes Jeffrey R. Immelt of GE who observes that GE division where the business heads did not move around too much, they did very well and wherever it was a revolving door the division did poorly. The reason is that, when they stayed long they acquired deep expertise which made a huge difference in the quality of decisions.

4.    Most of the key principles of systematic practice are available to every one: Just look at Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography
I have read that during my childhood but little did I know that it had a great self-improvement process embedded in it. Bottom line is that process for improvement in the chosen area of work is very much in one’s control and we need an external coach or mentor or guru to scale to the next level.

5.    Motivation that is required has to be self-generated (intrinsic) otherwise there is no chance one can endure for such a long time.
It reminds me of Drucker’ s quip “We know nothing about motivation – all we can do is write books about it”. One can almost viscerally comprehend why it has to be intrinsic, but how do you get there is not clear.

6.    Start as early as possible:
This is the most common sense stuff. Early start gives a feeble advantage (if at all). But, any sort of encouragement motivates that person to pull in more efforts. This marginal difference, because of sustained practice morphs into a monstrous difference over a period. Question is “How early?” As early as you can like Tiger Woods at golf course at the age of two? Then, this advice flies in face of current youth (or is it every generation?) where they would like to choose almost everything by themselves. By then, I am afraid it is far too late. So, in effect, you have to choose for the kid and make sure they believe they would have chosen that anyway - given their innate strengths!. 

7.   Self-Regulation:
Self-regulation – it seems like a nuanced concept. You don’t set a goal related to an outcome but the process to get there. He gives some examples: Instead of winning a sales order, goal may be discern the customer’s unstated needs. Or a pianist may focus on improving a particular portion of a passage. Per author, it is one of the key differences between mediocre and world class folks.

World class performance comes with a huge price tag also. It may cost all other key things which are valuable by themselves (e.g. family life). The end note from author is very sober – in fact, so sober that I felt mediocrity may not be that bad after all.

It also reminds me of the Oscar winning movie Amadeus: In the last scene, Mozart’s contemporary Antonio Salieri (played by Murray Abraham who won an Oscar for that role), says “mediocrity is everywhere – I am the champion”.  The way he says during the movie’s conclusion would leave an indelible imprint in your memory – the thesis or contents of the book may also come that close.

Thanks for reading this far……