Talent is Overrated Book Review

One of the best little gadgets I’ve ever bought has got to be my Kindle, in the past when I found a book I wanted to read it called for a trip to the closest book store which is literally an hour drive, (ed note:  reading is not a big priority in Southern Illinois) or I could order it online and wait for it to show up; now I just go online and download it straight to my Kindle.

I’ve been studying and playing chess regularly ever since I bought that chess board from a Goodwill store and while I got reaquainted with the game I found my abilities increased fairly quickly then suddenly began to plummit when I began actually trying increase my rating.  In response I’ve been reading about chess training and in my studies the book, “Talent is Overrated” by Geoffrey Colvin keeps coming up, along with the number 10,000 hours.  I’ve now read about half the book and highly recommend it.

The book is written from a business perspective but actually covers almost all disciplines where talent is thought to be a major factor in success.  The theme so far as been that talent, if such a thing even exists, plays little role in the exceptional abilities that exceptional people possess. 

Perhaps one reason why I like this book so much is that it reaffirms something I’ve always believed.  I’ve never really thought that talent has that much to do with success and that hard work is the real key.  Through my reading I keep saying to myself, that is exactly what I thought. 

I think “Talent is Overrated” falls into that category of books that may be called, Science dumbed down.  Several scientific reasearch studies are quoted and generalized but only as periphery evidence for the authors assertions.  Is that a bad thing?  Not at all, I don’t want to read reams of data and scientific study I just want to gist and that’s what “Talent is Overrated” offers. 

“Talent is Overrated” explains how exceptional performance is gained from deliberate practice and the principal applies to not just mental disciplines like music and chess, but physical ones as well.  Anyone whose spent any time training for cycling understands this well.  If I want to be a better climber I’ve got to go ride hills, even better I should repeat the hills.  If I want to be a faster climber I’ve got to push myself into the red zone on these hills for far longer than is comfortable.  If you want success you’ve got to pay for it. 

As I mentioned in my chess research the number 10,000 hours of deliberate practice keeps coming up.  Since cycling is the only discipline I really know much about I decided to see how that stacked up.  Pro cyclists put about 20,000 miles of training and racing into their legs each year.  I’d wager a guess that on average that figures out to about 1000 hours per year.  Most pros seem to get started actually training and racing around the age of 12-14 but from the bios I’ve read they probably don’t start putting in the serious mileage they need to break into the highest ranks until they’ve finished high school.   It seems that the top racers are usually won by racers in their late 20s early 30s and I’d be willing to bet that they’ve all put in about ten years or 10,000 hours of hard work.

I can almost hear my friend JC’s voice telling me several years ago when I was trying push myself to ride faster and keep up with my brother, he said, “Face it, you’re as fast as you’re going to get, he’s always going to be faster, you just didn’t get the genes for it.”  He’s told me several times that genetics and natural abilities are the biggest limiting factor in our performance in cycling and I’ve never really believed it.  Yeah he’s got a point, Pro cyclists have genetic gifts that give them an advantage to process more oxygen, and naturally smaller athletes are always at an advantage when it comes to climbing hills, but I’m not trying to win the Tour de France, I just want to be able to hang on in a fast group ride and maybe one day toe the line at a race.  I don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to do that, but I may have to work like him.

While the book offers two case studies, Mozart and Tiger Woods, there is plenty of evidence in my own life that indicates that talent really is overrated.  I found that working hard on the trainer and mountain biking over the winter gave me an advantage this year, an advantage I feel like I partially squandered over the summer but that can be remedied next year.  I’ve always said I was talentless in music but that is probably due to the fact that no one in my home played music and I was never exposed to music lessons or instruments.  When I bought a guitar, the third time around, and actually forced myself to sit and practice I found I could play some chords and strum out some songs, but when I ran into some difficulty with my fingering that I couldn’t seem to overcome on my own I put the guitar up and it’s collected dust in my closet ever since. 

So in closing if you’ve ever wondered what gives people seemingly super natural abilities read “Talent is Overrated”  I’ve learned that my chess grand master certificate is easily in my reach, as my current rate of chess practice lies around 4 hours a week I’ll have it right around my 80th birthday.

About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
This entry was posted in lifestyle, Reviews, Running, training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Talent is Overrated Book Review

  1. Steve says:

    A very interesting notion which certainly makes sense to me. If I take the title literally, then talent DOES matter, it’s just overrated. I agree with that. Practicing is clearly important, but I have found that people don’t practice very well – they tend to practice those things that they “enjoy” doing rather than those things they are weak on. If a baseball hitter has trouble with outside pitches, that’s what he should work on. Too many hitters are satisfied launching home runs off batting practice pitches right over the plate. In cycling, I believe this translates into the phrase, “empty miles.”

    While deliberate practice may be the dominate factor in predicting success, I believe other factors such as geneology, psychology, coaching, and luck also play significant roles. This shouldn’t take away from the general point – if you want to get good at something, you can do it if you just practice!

  2. Matt Gholson says:

    You’re exactly right about practice, he even mentions it in the book, if you’re enjoying practicing then your probably not practicing right.

  3. rlhoover says:

    Rings true to me. I know that I will probably never consistently achieve 17-18 mph rides. That will take time and endurance.
    The thing I discovered in chess was pattern recognition and risk assesment. BTW, d4 and wins! –Ron

  4. Matt Gholson says:

    I think 17-18 can be done, you just got to work at it.

    d4? Maybe that’s why I suck, I open with e4, Nf3, Bb5 and lose

  5. rlhoover says:

    Major LOL! OK, I’ll take your challenge. 17, here I come, but I will live and die with d4!

  6. James C Wise says:

    I call bullshit. look up diminishing returns. talent trumps everything. you can always be better but you’ll never rise above your innate abilities. there is a wall that you eventually hit that can’t be overcome.
    the use of fertilizer improves crop production on farms and in gardens; but at some point, adding more and more fertilizer improves the yield less and less, and excessive quantities can even reduce the yield. A common sort of example is adding more workers to a job, such as assembling a car on a factory floor. At some point, adding more workers causes problems such as getting in each other’s way, or workers frequently find themselves waiting for access to a part. In all of these processes, producing one more unit of output per unit of time will eventually cost increasingly more, due to inputs being used less and less effectively.
    If you are not conscious of the point of diminishing returns, you will fall into the trap of investing more input then your return is worth. That results in ineffective usage of your energy. This is something neurotic perfectionists are often guilty of. They keep hammering at a task, refusing to let go of it even till the last minute, because they want to beat them into perfection. In trying to fulfill their satisfaction of having a ‘perfect’ or near perfect outcome, they jeopardize the bigger picture. The effort they invested in trying to get the last few nuggets of output in place could have been more effectively spent in generating a lot more output in tasks. This is why quitting to win is so important.

    The law of diminishing returns is related to the 80-20 rule. With 80-20 rule, 20% of your effort usually leads to 80% of output. The law of diminishing returns kicks in beyond the 20th percentile. With every additional unit of effort after the 20th percentile (this figure is dependent on the situation nature), the amount of output you get in return is minimal.

    • Steve says:

      I don’t see the two concepts (dedicated practice and diminishing returns) as contradictory. With almost no practice, an adult can be taught how to shoot a basketball. With a few hours of practice, he would become not embarrassingly bad. With a few hundred hours of practice, you would expect him to become at least average if not pretty good at shooting the ball. At that point, the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in. Our hypothetical shooter would need thousands of hours of additional practice to improve from “pretty good” to “very good.” That is precisely what Colvin asserts. Now, will our hypothetical shooter ever play in the NBA or be in the Hall of Fame? At that point, we’re talking about rising to World Class level – less than .0001% of the population. To reach that level, our shooter will be competing against people who have put just as much time into practice as he has, meaning practice time is no longer a factor in comparing the athletes and the only discriminators are physical size, psychological makeup, and luck. So as long as you don’t intend on joining the incredibly small fraction of people who make up the world’s elite, there are incredible strides to be made simply through dedicated practice.

  7. Matt Gholson says:

    Colvin also states that exceptional performers don’t just continue to repeat the same exersize over and over again, that would be kind of like JC’s arguement of putting more workers on the floor. Colvin says exceptional performers break down their activity and with the help of expert feedback figure out what they are doing well and not so well. Then they design, or have designed for them a deliberate practice routine that focuses on those parts.

    Some could argue that talent not only exists and is simply the will to put in the practice to get really good at something, but that’s not really the definition of talent. Talent is defined as a natural ability or skill, not a natural desire to purse some skill and while I think that some people may improve seemingly more quickly through practice this probably has more to do with genetic differences in the brain and body instead of a natural ability to do that activity.

    Its an interesting topic and ultimately whether you belive it or not could have a big impact on whether a person achieves their goals or not. If you believe talent exists and you lack it you have a convient excuse to fail. If you believe that talent is overrated and you don’t need it you have a convient excuse to continue to do something even if you fail.

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