Tuesday, August 11, 2009

**** Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

This book will challenge everything you know about talent. The Webster definition of talent is “the natural endowments of a person” not the skills learned through hours and hours practice and experience. Well, perhaps it’s time to rewrite the dictionary, and redefine what it takes to be a talented individual. Now don’t get your hopes way up and think that if you’re lacking talent, that you can simply follow some quick formula and acquire it. Oh no, it may not be inborn as you thought previously, but it’s the next hardest thing from that. It’s gained via laborious, obsessive, deliberate, mindful practice. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year for at least ten years for most vocations. Yes, TEN years! Maybe it would have been easier to have chosen the right mom and dad after all. So what are you waiting for? Get to work, and in only 10 years you’ll be talented!

Don’t we all believe that some folks are just gifted?

More than 75% of education professionals believed that singing, composing, and playing concert instruments requires a special gift or talent; which is a higher proportion than for any other field. p17

There are no short cuts

257 music students were divided into 3 groups based upon achievement; top, middle, bottom. Judged by early signs of special talent, all 3 groups were highly similar, and they all started playing around age 8... The avg hours of practice needed by the most elite group and the least elite group was the same to graduate to the next level achievement - about 1200 hours of practice for each group member to reach level 5. The elite group members reached the higher level simply because they practiced more each day. They practiced 2 hours/day vs. 15min/day for the lowest group... Nothing it turned out, enabled any group to reach any given level without putting in those hours. "There's absolutely no evidence of a fast track for high achievers." p19

What about Mozart? Surely he was talented at birth?

Mozart's 1st 4 piano concertos were composed at age 11, but they actually contain no original music by him. He put them together by combining works by other composers. His next 3 at 16, also contained no new music but were arrangements of Bach, whom Mozart had studied under. Today, none of these are regarded as great music, and they are rarely performed or recorded... His 1st work regarded as a masterpiece was composed when he was 21. An early age, but one must remember that he had been trained in music since age 3 for 18 years... For 200 years people believed that he had a miraculous ability to compose entire pieces in his head. This view is based upon a famous letter that it turns out is a forgery. Mozart didn't conceive whole works in his mind, perfect and complete. Surviving manuscripts show he was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, and putting them aside for months or years. He wrote music the way ordinary humans do. p26-27

What about Tiger Woods then?

Tiger was born into the home of an expert golfer who loves to teach. His mother doesn't work outside the home, and he's an only child. Tiger is the 1st priority in the marriage. He received his 1st putter at 7 months (not years!). He'd watch his dad hit balls into a net for hours on end, while in his high chair... At age 19, he became a member of the Walker cup (though he didn't win). At that point he had been practicing intensely for 17 years... Asked to explain his uncommon success, father and son always gave the same reason: hard work. p30-31

High IQ doesn’t equal High Achievement

Among workers, the avg IQ increases with the complexity of the work, which seems totally unsurprising... The trouble starts when we dig beneath the averages... A wide range of studies shows that the correlations between IQ and achievement aren't nearly as strong as the data on broad averages would suggest, and in many cases there's no correlation at all. p42

Nor does it equal great sales people or chess or scrabble players

Bosses tend to think that smarter sales people will sell more, but when compared to actual sales results, they found no such correlation... In games like Chess, scrabble, and go, you'd think IQ would correlate with performance. Yet researchers have found some chess grand masters with lower than normal IQs. It's a similar story for Go, the japanese game equivalent in complexity to chess. And some top Scrabble players score below avg on test of verbal ability. p44

IQ helps for UNFAMILIAR tasks

The strength of IQ as a predictor of chess achievement dropped drastically as children worked and got better, and IQ was of no value in predicting how quickly they would improve. Many studies of adults in the workplace have shown the same pattern. IQ is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a while, IQ predicts nothing about performance. p45

Go figure?

The Czech chess master Richard Reti once played 29 blindfolded games simultaneously. Afterward he left his briefcase at the exhibition site, and commented what a poor memory he has. p46

They’re mere mortals after all

Chess masters don't have incredible general purpose memories. What they have was an incredible ability to remembe real chess positions and patterns, honed from hours of practice and study. If you scramble the chess board randomly (not with actual chess positions), the chess master can barely perform better than a non-player in remembering where the pieces are placed. p47

You better learn to work around that personality of yours. You’re stuck with it

Are you stuck with the personality traits you have? Research going back decades suggest that personality dimensions don't vary much over the course of a person's life. But this doesn't limit a person's ability to achieve; it may limit only the fields in which a person is most likely to excel. p48

What have discovered about what makes people excel?

- It's not experience. There's some evidence that some people in a wide range of fields actually get worse after years of doing something.

- It's not inborn talents. Many untalented folks have achieved amazing things.

- It's not general abilities like IQ and memory. p51

Practice early and often. And then goto sleep early and often.

Let's go back to the study of the 257 violinists. All 3 groups were spending the same total amount of time on music related activities - 51 hours/week. All 3 agreed that solo practice was the number one activity to improve performance. They all knew it, and had the time, but they all didn't do it. The 2 top groups solo practiced 24 hours/week vs. 9 hours/week for the bottom group. As for pleasure, solo practice ranked near the bottom of all activities, including formal performances... The top 2 groups did most of their practicing in the late morning or early afternoon, when they were still fairly fresh. The bottom group group practiced mainly in the late afternoon, when they were more likely to be tired. The top 2 groups also slept more at night and took more naps. All that practicing seems to demand a lot of recovery. p59

If practice equals better performance, then why isn't the best group practicing any more than the middle group?.... The answer lies in the student's histories. By age 18, the 1st group had accumulated on avg 7410 hours of lifetime practice vs. 5301 hours for the middle, and 3420 for the third. p60 1 5, 2 4

The 10 year rule

In a famous study of chess players, the researchers proposed the 10 year rule, that no one reaches the highest level w/o 10 years of intensive play and practice... Subsequent research in a wide range of fields has substantiated the 10 year rule in math, science, music, swimming, x-ray diagnosis, tennis, literature - no one, not even the most 'talented' performers became great w/o at least 10 years of very hard preparation. p61 3 1

A study of 76 composers from many historical periods looked at when they produced their 1st notable works or masterworks. Of over 500 works, only 3 were composed before year 10 of the composer’s career, and those 3 were produced in years 8 and 9… In a similar study of painters, the same pattern although the period was shorter – 6 years. A study of 66 poets found a few who produced notable works in less than 10 years, but none in less than 5; 55 of the 66 needed 10 or more years. P152

Like a fine wine, you’re still getting better after 19 years

Many scientists and authors produce their greatest works only after 20 or more years of devoted effort, which means even after 19 years, they are still getting better! p62 1 2, 2 2

It’s never too late to learn to get better

By the late 19th century, research was showing that ordinary people in various lines of work could keep getting better even after their performance had apparently plateaued. These highly experienced workers, whose performance hadn't improved in years, suddenly got markedly better when they were offered incentives or given new kinds of training. 63 1 2,

Experts are made, not born

The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain... This explains high achievement without the concept of talent playing any role. p63 4 3, 5 1

4 hours total practice per day – max with 90 minute max sessions

A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that 4 or 5 hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and in sessions lasting lasting no more than 90min... This is true of violinists, chess champions, swimmers.71 2 2

Why companies don’t create talent very well

In fact, life at most companies seems almost intended to defeat all the principles of deliberate practice. What we generally do at work isn't designed by anyone to make us better at anything. Usually it isn't designed at all; we're just given an objective that's necessary for the employer;s goals... And second, the activities that would make us better are usually not highly repeatable. When we face a new or unusual challenge - a competitor's innovation, a shift in customer attitudes - we typically find little past experience to guide us because we've had so few chances to deal with those situations... Deliberate practice demands that we push ourselves to the point where we break down and then develop a solution, in our business lives the cost of mistakes is high. Every incentive urges us to stick with what's safe and reliable… We weren’t hired so we could spend time improving our own abilities; we were hired to produce results p72 b1 2

73 1 1

A better way to develop talent

Companies tend to assign people based on what they’re already good at, not what they to work on. It’s difficult to pull accomplished employees out of jobs they do extremely well and put them into positions where they may struggle. 128 3 3

… One technique to mitigate this: short term work assignments. Managers don’t leave their jobs, but they take on add’l assignments outside their field of expertise. This increases the burden on the employee, but most don’t seem to mind because they realize that they’ve been identified for extra development. p130 3 2

Most employees will never serve on the company’s board, but many can serve on a local non-profit’s board, and the experience is an excellent opportunity to develop strategic thinking, financial analysis, and many other skills. p131 2 3

A telling indicator of future managerial success is how interns get others to work with them when they have absolutely no authority… Another is if the candidate played team sports and what their role was (captain?). p133 3 b4, b1

At AMEX, 25% of an executives pay depends on people development. 135 2 b2

The difference between an amateur and a pro

A study of singers found that when amateurs took a voice lesson, they experienced it as an enjoyable release of tension, but when pros took a lesson, they experienced it as an intense, difficult effort. On the outside, they were doing the same thing, but on the inside they were doing completely different things, and that’s what mattered. p80 2 8

You’re not getting better when its automatic

When we see a great performance, it strikes us that they’ve practiced so long that they can do it automatically. But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically. When we learn to do anything new, we go through 3 stages. The 1st demands a lot of attention as we try out the controls, and learn the rules. In the 2nd stage, we being to coordinate our knowledge, linking movements together, and more fluidly combining our actions with our knowledge, the situation, and the rules. In the 3rd stage, we perform with barely a thought. And with that we stop improving… Great performers never allow themselves to reach stage 3 in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice – avoiding automaticity. p82 4 2, 5 1

Find a mentor, or you’re on your own

If you want to play the piano, the exact skills and the order in which to learn them have been worked out by many generations of teachers. It’s similar in highly structured professions for lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. But in a great many careers, and in the advanced stages of all of them, there is no published curriculum that must be studied and mastered. You’re on your own… Yet in all practice it is highly valuable to get other’s views about you should be working on and how you’re doing. 109 2 3 3 1

Basic skills acquisition

The most obvious way to improve for work involves presentations and speeches. For most people, practice consists of a few run throughs. But now think of all of the ways that practicing could be done much better. One could analyze the text and in each section determine the most important idea to be conveyed – passion, logical inevitability, bonding with audience, humor – and then work on each section repeatedly, constantly striving to express that key idea more effectively, with feedback after each repetition, from a coach or watching a video playback… Is this way more work than anyone you know has ever put into a presentation? But it is exactly the type of practice that great performers put into whatever they do. p110 3 5

Why giving performance reviews suck for everyone involved

One the most dreaded tasks for managers is giving job evaluations. The message can be broken down into pieces and each piece analyzed for intent, then practiced repeatedly with feedback from a coach or video. Even being interviewed during job search or by the media can be practiced in this way. You probably know the key messages you wish to convey regardless of the questions you’re asked. p111 3 2 3 7 4 4 4 6

Watch and learn

Watch a presentation that you consider especially well done, and make note of its various points; later after you’ve forgotten most of it,use your notes to create a talk making the same points, video it, and compare it to the original. P111

The case for the free MBA

Take business classes that apply the case method… Since the correct response isn’t always clear, it’s helpful to hear the perspectives of other students and especially the teacher… You don’t have to go to biz school either; many of the case studies are for sale online. Ask ‘what would you do?’ while reading the paper and listening to the news. Then WRITE IT DOWN and KEEP IT. Comparing your response to what the protagonist actually did is the only way this exercise can yield genuine learning, and that learning will be considerable. 113 2 2, 3 5, 3 8, 3 13, 3 18

Rebuild your foundation

Review your old textbooks that are related to your field so that your fundamental skills become faster, more facile, and more confident… Do math by hand instead of via calculator or worse a spreadsheet. Pencil edit magazine articles. You won’t learn new skills, but you’ll be building the strengths that make your skills possible. 114 b1 1

Web-based simulation games in marketing, stock trading, negotiating, corp strategy, and many other disciplines are widely available. Use these to practice.116

Set goals related to the process necessary for achievement, not the outcome

Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome. The best performers set goals that aren’t about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome. Don’t set the goal on winning the sale, but on discerning the customer’s unstated needs. P117

Focus on what your doing; don’t tune everything out

Average runners tend to think about anything other than running. Elite runners focus intensely on themselves; they count their breaths, simultaneously count their strides in order to maintain certain ratios. P118

Pick stretch goals, not comfortable ones

Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or OK. The best performers judge themselves against a standard that’s relevant to what they’re trying to achieve like comparing against a personal best, or a competitor, or the best performance in their field… The key is to pick a goal that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Research tells us that too high a standard produces no advancement. 119 2 b3, 3 3, 3 b4

Stop blaming others, and start blaming yourself

Average performers believe that their errors were caused by factors outside their control; bad luck, task was too hard, I don’t have natural ability. Top performers believe they are responsible for their errors. P119

Figure what went wrong, and how to fix it – then test your theory by doing it again

You reflect on something major and significant that you performed at work. Odds are strong that it was not perfect, and that parts of it were unpleasant. Excellent performers respond by adapting the way the performed to negative outcomes; average performers avoid the negative situations in the future. Average performers with no clear idea why things didn’t go perfectly, and attribute the failures to vague forces outside their control. As a result they’re clueless about how to adapt, so they just avoid going through anything like that again. Which means they have zero chance of getting better… Excellent performers are therefore more likely to repeat the task with a new strategy, and thus perform better next time. p120 2 7, 2 10 3 4

How to become an expert

If you set a goal of becoming an expert in your business, you would study the history of your business, identify the leading experts, read everything you could find, interview people inside and outside your company who could provide new perspectives, track key statistics and trends. It’s quickly apparent that you could make yourself impressively more knowledgeable in short order. With time your knowledge advantage will become large. 121 3 2

Create filters to remove the noise

In a study of top and apprentice pilots who listed to air traffic recordings, the apprentices actually recalled more of the filler words that had no practical significance. But the experts recalled far more of the important concept words. They had heard the communication as part of a rich mental model, they could focus brainpower on what counted. 123 b1 b5

Two groups of firefighters, experts and novices, were shown photos of fires. The novices saw what was obvious – intensity and color of the flames. The experts saw a story; using their mental model to infer what must have led to the current state and to predict what was likely to happen next. 124 1 6

Seeds of trust; become vulnerable

Reciprocal vulnerability is the beginning of trust; so sharing personal stories or revealing feelings is a way to foster that in the workplace. 139 3 b2

Revenge of the Right Brain

For 300 years, the source of economic dominance has clearly been leadership in science and technology, but now that era may now be ending. Technology will be commoditized by China and India, being dispersed and adopted immediately after its created. Economic value will arise instead from the powers of the right brain – creativity, imagination, empathy, aesthetics. Exhibit A – the iPod vs MP3 predecessors. Exhibit B – Target over Walmart. P147

This phenomenon is sufficiently widespread that the MFA degree is gaining ground on the MBA, and some schools are offering a joint MFA/MBA degree. P148

In many creative fields the person who pursues the advanced degree has consciously chosen a path that leads to a professorship not a life of innovating in that domain; those with most formal education are less eminent as innovators. In science and technology it is different. Advanced education is absolutely required; no one is going to cure cancer as a sophomore in high school. P156

No flashes of genius; just more hard work

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine; he made it more efficient so it could become the engine behind the British industrial revolution… Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin. In fact, many had been invented to remove seeds from long staple cotton, which wasn’t economical to grow on a large scale. His genius was to invent a device that would work on short staple cotton using what came before... The aha moments grow out of hours of thought and study. The idea of an epiphany is a dreamer’s paradise, where people want to believe that things are easier than they are. P159

And what about those legends of great creative products appearing suddenly and fully formed? The answer is simple: they aren’t true. Samuel Coleridge claimed that 100s of lines of came to him in an opium haze for his famous work, Kublai Khan. But an earlier version of the poem was found, and worse, another previous book has passages similar to his own… Abe Lincoln didn’t write his famous address on the back of an envelope while riding a train to Gettysburg as the legend goes. A number of drafts have been found. And as for the original Eureka moment – nothing in Archimedes writings or in writings of his contemporaries supports or hints at the bathtub story. Scholars have concluded that it is a myth. P161

Blind at the top

In a survey of 600 executives, those at the top thought the main reason why their company wasn’t more innovative was that it didn’t have enough of the right people. Lower level managers held a markedly different view – that the right people were present but that the culture kept them from innovating. P163

Blah, blah, blah

Organizations can take 2 steps that are especially effective in light of how innovation really happens: telling people what’s needed, and giving them freedom to innovate… Leaders exhort the troops to be innovative, but no one understands clearly what that means. Unsure where to go, they go nowhere. P164

It’s CYA that rules the day

Most organizations are not intellectually stimulating, even the field itself is fascinating; rather than offering opportunities to learn and rewarding curiosity, it leaves inquisitive employees to find their own ways to learn. And instead of furnishing structure and support – meaning clear roles and responsibilities in a positive, forward looking, build on success environment – many operate in a cover you ass culture. P175

What about starting in the womb?

Starting early holds advantages that become less available later in life… Violinist’s brains devote more territory to the workings of the left hand – the one that plays the notes – than do other people’s brains. This effect is much more pronounced in people who started at an early age. A separate effect involves myelin, the substance that wraps around neurons with practice, insulating and strengthening key connections. Practice in childhood cause myelin to build up more than does practice in adulthood. P171 Oh what a horribly dangerous statement this is. Now many over the top parents are going to start educating their children at the moment of conception in trying to get a head start. What a sad state of affairs for childhood in the 21st century. L

How to be a good parent

The most stimulating home environments had parents who encouraged the curiosity of their children at an early age, and answered their questions with great care – and who were structured and supportive, with everyone have clear roles, and tasks, and parents going to some lengths to support their children’s practice. P174

You can bet that this will happen to kids in China and India

It would seem possible to train young people several hours a day over years for high achievement in a specific business. It would be possible – but would it be good? The evidence suggests we could do it, yet most of us instinctively reject that idea. Why? We all feel that there is more to life than work, and providing a well rounded education for your child is our hope enriching their life and making them fulfilled . And yet our society has very little problem with kids being directed toward fields other than business at an early age, and having those same kids give up the notion of a broad education by having them focus on a particular field (think Olympic gymnast or Tiger Woods as a child). If other cultures and govt’s decide to focus on turning out managers who are whizzes at age 21, and who will just keep getting better, we will have to confront that reality, and perhaps think again about our own views. P179

Don’t even think about it

Any adult thinking of starting a professional career in any field where participants begin their development as small children should first get out their calculator and face the music, since many of those participants would have logged over 10,000 hours in their childhood, and accumulate over 1500 hours of additional practice each year as an adult. P172

You can age more slowly

As we age, we slow down. Remembering and solving unfamiliar problems take about twice as long in our 60s as in our 20s. So it is surprising to learn that excellent performers manage to continue achieving at high levels well beyond the point where age related declines would seem to make that impossible… Excellent performers do suffer the same age

related decline in speed and general cognitive abilities as everyone else – except in their field of expertise. P180

But it ain’t easy

Studies have shown that just continuing to work at a job is not enough to stave off age related declines… Deliberate practice is required to maintain that edge and to develop other skills and strategies to compensate for declines that can no longer be avoided. P182

It must come from within

People who rank high for intrinsic motivation consistently produce work that is judged more creative in studies. Conversely, people who work in fields demanding creativity reliably rank higher in intrinsic motivation. P189

It absolutely must come from within

Studies have shown that virtually any external attempt to constrain or control the work results in less creativity. Just being watched is detrimental. Even being offered incentives for doing the work results in less creative output than being offered nothing… Only a few certain external motivators that reinforce intrinsic motivation work effectively. Recognition that confirms competence turned out to be effective. Personal feedback – without expectation of being judged – could actually enhance creativity if was constructive, kind hearted, non threatening, and work focused rather person focused. Rewards that involve more time, freedom, or resources to pursue creativity could be helpful as well. Summary: Intrinsic motivation is best, and extrinsic motivation that’s controlling is detrimental, but extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic drives can be highly effective. P192

What starts the ball rolling?

Instead of compulsive practice producing high ability, high ability leads to compulsive practice. Some kids are born with an ability to learn far more quickly in a particular domain. They practice all the time, setting new goals, and increasing their skills because their ability to learn makes it so rewarding. P196

Getting a head start means nothing if you don’t do the work

Even those cases of child prodigies with proclivities that appear to be innate, studying them doesn’t get us very far. That’s because the large majority don’t grow up to be great performers. A few do, but most don’t maintain the intensely focused daily work for the many years necessary to achieve at the highest levels... Many gifted kids eventually fall apart. They are told they are smart, when they inevitably hit the wall and get stuck, they think they must be dumb. P197 See Carol Dweck’s Mindset.

A very small advantage in some field at an early age can spark a series of events that produce far larger advantages… Each increase in competence is matched to a better environment, and in turn, the environment will be expected to further enhance their competence. P200

Slow and steady wins the race

The beginner’s skills are so modest that he can manage only a little bit of deliberate practice, since its highly demanding. But that little bit, increases that person’s skills making it possible to practice more, which increases the skill level more… This theory fits the evidence… In virtually every field, beginners can’t manage more than 1 hour of practice per day. But by the time they become top performers, they’ve built up a tolerance for 4 to 5 hours per day. P201

Compare yourself to your peers to feel good; intrinsic motivation must be fostered

Researchers have observed that as people start learning skills in virtually any field, they’re typically compared against other’s their own age – not the world’s greatest in that field… One way to get better than others your age is to start training earlier, thus accumulating more deliberate practice. Standing out any age is an excellent way to attract attention and praise, fueling the multiplier effect... Another way to ignite this multiplier effect is to begin learning skills in a place where competition is sparse. It’s a lot easier to stand out as a math whiz in a town of 100 than 100,000. p202

Reprogram your beliefs, and believe that if you put in the work, you’ll achieve – no matter your talent

If you believe that performance is forever limited by your lack of a specific innate gift, or by a lack of general abilities at a level you think must be necessary, then there’s no chance at all that you’ll do the work. That’s why the belief is tragically constraining. Everyone who has achieved exceptional performance has encountered terrible difficulties along the way. There are no exceptions. If you believe that doing the right kind of thing can overcome the problems, then you at least a chance of moving on to ever better performance. Those who see the setbacks as evidence that they lack the necessary gift will give up – they will never achieve what they might have… Above all, what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone. P206