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……



Ashok said...

Dear madhu
Loved reading you review enough to go and read thevreal thing. It gives some of us less gifted folks hope. Also reminds me of the message of the book 'OUTLIERS' by malcolm gladwell....where he actually gives the magic number of hours of practise required be better than average at any given read it if u havent as yet!

Satya chithi said...

Dear Madhu anna,
Point 2. One does not require XXXL level memory
stumbles me. If I focus on one field, I need to have a very good memory to remember all the knowledge i acquired, especially if I start early. Unless the knowledge that I acquired becomes a part of my daily life like eating and sleeping that I dont have to remember it.

Ramesh Emani said...

Hi Madhu,

Based on my observation of people I 100% agree with the author. May be there is a minimum threshold of IQ, but that is more like average IQ and not any higher amount is needed. Malcolm Gladwel also talks of 10,000 hours of practice. I have seen in career growth of people - those who specialize and continuously improve are the people that grow. Not people who move around too much.

That's why you see people who stick to one company grow lot more than people who move around (there may be exceptions but they are exceptions).

This should be made required reading for people starting to enter their careers.

Subhalakshmi said...

well!!! one thing is indeed certain. Hard work and hard word indeed succeeds...maybe the 'success time' differs and this 'differs' is more a result of the passion(for that knowledge) that drives the hard work...
"Expectation" is also something that makes or mars a talent...There is a saying "A Maths teachers' kid is a dullard" While I would not want to dwell much on that statement, I will allude it to the contxt that there is always a 'perfection' 'expected' if the 'proven knowledgeable' mentor, parent, happens to be bringing up the talent...More the knowledge of that mentor, parent, that 'expectation' many a times serves as a negative motivation on the talent at a very early stage than giving some time to evolve...A certain balance on 'expectation' 'motivation' helps talent to evolve/blossom..

Bluebirds said...


Good to see one after a long time. Very well summarized - motivated me to write a few lines here.
I am reminded of a saying from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night : "Be not afraid of greatness : some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them". Classic examples of this in India I see are Lord Rama, Mahatma Gandhi and a certain lady with the same last name holding a remote control - specifically in that order.

I will take a small detour here - before coming back to this quote - that I have always been fascinated with the applicability of the capacitor in so many aspects of life. Left to itself, it stays where it is. Give it a step input, it charges (exponential first and stabilizing later - showing rapid adaptation) and holds charge as long as the step is maintained ( I believe this step is called motivation). With time the step becomes a ladder and it follows a pattern of charge-stabilize-charge with increasingly higher steps. Give an impulse input (a spike which is given and withdrawn), it charges to full-charge in no time (not gradually) but starts decaying exponentially until it goes to near zero charge where for most of its life after that it basks in the glory that it was once fully charged - though it is currently near zero. There may be moments when it realizes that it is actually near zero and convinces itself that if only someone had not withdrawn the impulse, it could have shaken the earth, and so on. In reality, this is where the difference kicks in. What separates Newton, Buddha and Archimedes was that they converted the impulse into a step and achieved/retained the greatness. So, surely there is a case for external excitation using which one will eventually reach his / her level of competence. It can come in the form of an apple hitting the head or the water level rising or simply seeing things one has not seen before.

Coming back to the three categories of greatness, I believe there is a definite case for the first category - and while nurturing will keep them on track, a certain "eye opener" moment also may be required - like seeing a poor, sick and dead man - to finally stamp that the individual is highly deserving of the label of greatness. It is no wonder that those who have "achieved greatness" in the current generation, having realized the amount of sweat they have put in (10,000 hours theory) start believing that this is one proven way and hence start putting the kids through the motions at an early age. The third and final category is kind of "always on life support" and withdrawl of external support can ensure that they fall to their levels of incompetence (If there is something such as rising to their level of competence, there must also be a falling to their level of incompetence :-)).

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hello Sathya,
Thanks for your view on point #2.
I would also agree with author "awesome" memory is not required. Whomever I have come across also display extra ordinary memory in a very specific or a narrow field or specialization. A cricket buff will recall an arcane fact about test or some county match but may not his/her own country's PM or some key posts.
Memory, i believe, is a function of interest followed closely by your own efforts to chain and associate the same facts via multiple links.
When that is done, it automatically becomes a part of you.

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hello Ramesh:
Thanks for your comments.
I wanted to give a "PS" to my post which you did as comment.
It should be read as early as possible in life so that there is enough time to practice.

Mukund Srinivasan said...

Crisp summary of a (seemingly) brilliantly written bok! In his own book "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell points to the Hockey preparation in ice-hockey crazy countries like Eastern Europe or Canada. In fact, the data shows that the players who make it to the elite league are, more often than not, born in the first half of the year, given the cut off date. I remember reading somewhere that Scrabble is less about cognitive verbal ability and more about the muscle memory one tends to build - I guess the same goes with Spelling Bee. For me, the best takeaway from Madhu's summary of Geoff's well articulated book is that earlier realization of the practice driven success is a sure shot recipe to increasing one's chances of winning. Of course, that leads me to a book that is in close analogy to what's written here - about creating one's own luck. Looking forward to Madhu reviewing Joseph Mazur's book in one of these updates (maybe a sequel to this?).

ESR said...

The theme looks very close to what Gladwell expounded in "Outliers". Even the reference to 10k hours reminds one of the 20k limit which he had come up with. If one believes that numbers do not lie, then greatness is a matter of being at the right place at the right time with optimal merit; rest is hype. On seeing your review, I am now keen to read this book and compare the two.

Satya chithi said...

Madhu anna, So memory is also acquired by practice, just like everything else. :)

vivisa said...


Your review was, as usual, very nice.

I have no clue, which of nurture vs nature (or a combination of the two in what proportions) is the actual underlying mechanism. Or whether a mechanism exists at all, that can be described as a cause for success.

My confusion can possibly be attributed to my current efforts at reading Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" along side Eco's essays - "Kant and The Platypus". I too am curious to understand the world and its apparent workings :)

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Thanks for your comments.
You are taking two of the toughest books and I am not surprised by your current state :-)
That said, in general what I think is that, by the time one figures out what makes the world tick, he/she is too tired to care :-|

vivisa said...

You are right, Madhu-san. Within a couple of page turns (or taps in the case of Kindle, which I've just taken to, for e-books), I feel like sleeping off. So much for some serious bed time reading :)

Suresh S said...

If the idea of the author is to say that you can better mediocrity by putting in lot more hours, then yes, he may be right. Or if he wants to say that memory power and IQ have no bearing on things, then also he is right. But there are areas where inborn talent cannot be denied. We have lot of examples for that.

I remember reading a Maths book written by a Prof of a prestigious institute and who in turn has great credentials. When writing about how Euler conjured up some formulas, he exclaims, "How did he see it". The ability to see things where none seem to exist is given only to a few. That is why in Amadeus you can see that Mozart hears the whole symphony, with all the harmonies, whereas Salieri hears only one part at a time. He just cannot comprehend everything at once, the way Mozart does.

Closer home would be the case of Illayaraja. That he has put in lot of hard work is undeniable. Yet, what he does is just not matched by others who put in as much hard work. He can visualize the whole score, with many instruments playing counterpoints, the rhythm going its own way and all and write it all down. This has definitely something to do with the way his brain is wired in the first place. No amount of hard work will get another musician to that level.

In essence, you can achieve a certain level of excellence but conscious practice and hard work, even if you are mediocre. But to get to the level of a genius, you need to be wired differently.

P.Varadarajan (Varad) said...

Madhu, I am afraid I am not in complete agreement with the thesis of the author. No denying the fact that without nurturing, talent will come to naught. No denying that without determination, mental make up and motivation, any amount of talent will not fructify. As you know, all gifted children do not end up as geniuses. A lot is lost in the way. Having said that, I believe what makes it easier for most people who succeed in fields like art, music, even sports in some cases, is such people do have an edge in terms of talent. Let us take the examples of Tendulkar, Kambli and Dravid from the field of Cricket. The former two, in my opinion, have displayed much greater natural flair than Dravid, but at the end of the day, I think Dravid is even more successful than Tendulkar in some ways (I know I am making a controversial statement here). Dravid overcame the shortfall in talent with sheer hard work, as the author has suggested but we cannot say he did not have talent. Kambli did not have the determination, motivation etc beyond a point and fell off. Tendulkar.....he was obviously the most talented and succeeded as only he has. In a country with a billion cricketers, I dont believe it can only be due to hard work and nurturing. Talent matters!


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hello Varad
Thanks for your comments.
It is very difficult to agree "fully" author's view point. But I surmise, he is "almost" right.
Since my cricket knowledge is less than average, I have no comments on the same.

Mohanakrishnan said...

I am in two minds on this - on the one hand, I want to totally agree with the view that hard-work, focus and preparation is hugely underrated in this world. We tend to see the glamorous 'talent', but ignore the 'practice' part. Someone once said that hours of effort has gone behind creating every 'effortless stroke' that we see during a match.
On the other hand, I somehow don't want to trash the talent either. So let me find some excuses to support this. Firstly, I think most of the successes are enabled by talent as well as practice. We have read stories of focus and dedication that has made icons like Sachin or Kapil. But I think they were hugely gifted too, to start with.
Secondly, the ability to have the fierce focus is in itself a gift, and it should be counted as a talent. (You can decide if this was a no-ball :-))

Srini Krishnan said...

Author's observation that continuous practice/ acquisition of skills to move ahead in a specific path of life.Reaffirms observation by other researchers, amateur and professional ones and by numerous successes in music, sports and business. Not just IQ ( left brain matter) but EQ too which is normally influenced highly by early neural pathways, affected by immediate family, society,memory of experiences etc. Daniel Goleman is a good guide here. Even with thorough training to gain competencies in IQ,EQ and becoming successful by certain measure a person can be less satisfied or wanting to find meaning in living / life. Howard Gardner's mutliple intelligence theory is good reference in early year nurturing.Align success path to your strengths. It is relevant here because even your minor strengths can be nurtured keeping your real strengths dormant for a long time.It is phrased differently or in a less scientific way - Do what you love. Tom Kelly's ( Ideo, author of Art of Innovation) speech at Stanford Technology ventures program is a good one in this context.Let us say question is how to gain skills, keep working, get results that gives you joy? The more you are in Flow more joyful you are. Flow happens when you master a skill and almost stop realizing that you apply it at work. Mastering a skill that you have identified to some extent naturally or strength and received validation / feedback. Picasso liked to paint. Worked on thousands. Received good feeback. Motivated. Did more. He must have been in Flow after 1000.You would have seen MS Subbalakshmi in flow. And she practised and learnt languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu. Prior to singing Hari Tum Haro first time on air she learnt how to sing and did it multiple times. Dan Pink identifies Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose as key drivers to motivation. Knowing one's strengths, developing skills that align and when you create something the world ( however small it may be )will benefit from , there is flow, joy and greater meaning. Nothing mediocre here because that is a external measurement and label. What I do should matter at a fundamental level for me to make me happy and the world a happier place. Talent that Gladwell or Colvin is related to success. They are actually talking about success and not talent for its own sake. Eastern philosophy and Indian systems have advocated the 3 principles of motivation and how success gets defined.

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Excellent post and a very good summary of the key messages in the book.
I guess the debate between Nature vs. Nurture is a tough one to resolve. As can be seen in the comments above, we often can find examples and counter-examples for arguing/defending both the positions.
There is no disputing that an extremely large amount of hard work, the 10K hours is required to really excel in most areas, especially those such as art, music. But what I always wonder is the wide variation we see in individual abilities in this area. Even among kids raised in the same family, sometimes even twins, we often find a huge variance in both the interest to pursue a particular area, and the progress one makes even when the exposure/training provided is identical. It is hard to figure out if the lack of progress is due to the lack of interest (motivation ?) or due to something which is innate. (As Mohan has mentioned above, this itself could be a "talent"). Sometimes pushing kids too much in a specific area also makes them rebel (especially during the teens), and so I always wonder what is the secret sauce to get someone to put in the serious amount of hardwork needed to excel.
The human brain with it's astounding complexity and capability is obviously highly plastic in the early years allowing it to be moulded quite easily. Most studies/theroies on how the brain learns indicate that it is essenialy by forming connections between the neurons and to keep them intact repeated use of the pathways that use these "connections" is needed. The popular saying is that neurons that fire together wire together. This goes well with the observed improvement one sees with the increased amount of practice one puts in. If you are practicing an instrument, after a while I think playing it becomes more or less autonomic, like driving a car while talking where the brain is able to do a reasonable job (not perfect as studies indicate that our field of vision or rather the zone from which the images are actively processed by the brain narrows considerably). If you are an expert musician, probably you are then focusing on some higher level stuff such as what more to innovate in terms of note sequences etc., and the translation takes very little effort. Probably I am digressing too much here, but I think any study of "talent" will invariably have to answer some of these questions about how the human brain really works..
I always wonder at the wide difference in ability of even kids in say discerning notes at a very young age. Some seem to be able to do it without effort, but some can really find it difficult. Again what is hard to say is if this was only due to exposure from birth (or even to sounds heard in the womb if that is true) or something else. Same is true of many other aspects. Some kids can just run fast naturally without any special training, while others struggle to maintain a decent pace. Obviously coaching, specific techniques can help one improve to a very good extent, but some just seem to be more "natural" at it. It is difficult to do controlled experiments to see if that initial "natural" advantage proves to be a distinct advantage or it can be offset by extensive structured training.
In summary, I personally feel that while we can try and offer as much exposure to a kid at a young age, it may also be prudent to watch for areas where the uptake is faster and allow the child to follow that path. "Talent" or let us say the innate preference to learn something quickly and easily can vary widely across the fields and if we allow them to explore those areas after an initial exposure to a wide range, it may be the best we can do for them.
Anyway, please do keep your excellent posts coming and good to see the wide variations in the point of views :)

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hello All,
Thanks for the copious remarks.It made my day!
Actually, seeing the comments and emails I am tempted to read the book called "Nurture assumption". But I don't want two consecutive posts of such a similar genre. We will catch up soon.

MV said...

Perhaps it is bit late to post this comment but nevertheless wanted to make a point.

The discussion here appears to talk about SKILL rather than CREATIVITY. There is fine distinction of works that are played by a set of rules - golf, cricket, music, scrabble, chess, dance, gymnastics, acting etc and ones that break the rules - the inventors and discoverers who go against views prevailing at the time. It takes courage to stand up for what is true than what is accepted.

Talent in my view has more to with creativity than the raw muscle memory of skill. Galileo, Darwin and Einstein were talented. Skills can be mastered in time, but to have an insight, before the science of the time can prove them right is creativity. To invent a helicopter, before centuries before it can be built is talent at its best.

Skill has rarely advanced our race. (So what if you can hit a hole in one.) And in due course will be forgotten. It has definitely helped in slavery. But creative works usually products of thinking - reasoning, imagination, plotting (writers) with skill. Usually they are talented because they can think rather than they can do.

Mohan V.

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Some new research findings on this topic… Continues to be controversial…

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Some new research findings on this topic… Continues to be controversial…

smulay said...

Madhu San

Very nice summary. Incidently Abhijit Bhaduri too has written a review of the book on LinkedIn.

Talent is good but Effort and Focus trumps everything. Some times when we look back at the day gone by, you'll be surprised how much of time we wasted on peripheral than the core.