Thursday, April 16, 2009

Is Talent Overrated?

This post deals with what distinguishes good performance from outstanding performance.

I just finished an interesting book, entitled “Talent is Over-rated” by Geoff Colvin. The subtitle of the book is “What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else”. His main argument is that highly successful people in fields such as music, chess, mathematics, or sports got that way not because of innate talent but due to something called “deliberate practice”.

Regardless of the field, he claims, the consistent characteristic of high performers is that they all employ “deliberate practice”.

So what is “deliberate practice”? The term refers to a behavior characterized by several elements: 1. It’s designed specifically to improve performance, 2. It can be repeated a lot, 3. Feedback on results is continuously available, 4. It’s highly demanding mentally regardless of whether the activity is intellectual or physical, and 5. It isn’t much fun (normally).

When I read the explanation, I immediately knew what it was and recognized it as something I have done in some areas of my life. I also remembered something that my high school band director (an early role model for me) always used to tell us: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Colvin provides a number of examples from different fields to illustrate “deliberate practice”. But basically it’s practice in which the performer focuses not on those aspects they’ve already mastered, but on those that they have not mastered or on areas that will give them an edge over competitors. Most of us, if we practice something (tennis, playing a musical instrument, etc.), we repeatedly go over those things that we know well and usually avoid the stuff that’s difficult (and not fun). World-class performers do just the opposite.

In some cases, top athletes have discovered short-cuts that greatly improve their performance. One example is top tennis players and how they respond to fast serves. A tennis ball, served by a top athlete, travels at about 150 miles per hour. An average person will try to follow the ball with their eyes, but this is too slow to allow them to position themselves and hit the ball consistently, if at all. A top tennis pro instead looks at the position of the opponent’s shoulders, hips, and general form as they are preparing to serve and then predicts where the ball is going to go. They are then able to get into position and be there before the ball arrives. However, in order to apply this bit of knowledge, one must have thousands of hours of experience observing and responding to tennis serves to develop this ability to “read” one’s opponent.

And that’s where the deliberate practice comes in. One must be aware of what aspects of the performance need to be practiced and then focus on those. It is a conscious choice, and the practice has a definite goal to it. The average person, on the other hand, will just mindlessly practice the same movement or activity over and over and never improve beyond a certain point.

More about "deliberate practice" and what this might mean for women in science in the next post...

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