With 361 days remaining, I’ve finally completed the first book in this project: Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. Ever since I skimmed through Cambridge’s mammoth of a book on expert performance, I’ve been really fascinated with how individuals became “great”.
For me, I had always thought certain skills (such as drawing) were innate and so it was no use to fight against what nature did or did not endow on me. Haven’t you always thought the same as well (that certain people just have “it”)? Well, how wrong we all were!
The book essentially gathers up some of the recent findings on expert performance during the last few years. The language itself is better compared to the very dry and scientific Cambridge book (though in fairness, the Cambridge book is really one of the top sources of information you can have on expert performance).
In a Yahoo interview, Colvin talks of the process of becoming great by saying that it is “demanding stuff” and that “to excel, you have to pursue these activities [where you want to be an expert] at length and with intensity.” It’s not that elite performers are born with God-given gifts. They’re great because they put in enough hours to really study and master every aspect of their given domain.
Child prodigies (such as Tiger Woods) started practicing their respective crafts at an early age (as young as 18 months, as in the case of Tiger). They reach such high levels of competency at such a young age because they have put more hours in their craft than people their own age. The more hours you put in your craft means the more likely you’ll become competent and exceed those who either started later than you (meaning they have spent less hours in the craft) or those who simply do not practice enough.
The key aspect that connects all elite performers is hard work. You can’t be lazy and expect to be great. If you’re not willing to know all that you can about your chosen field and to constantly work on your weaknesses in that field, it’d be hard to reach expert status (even if you are competent now, sooner or later, others will catch up to you if your skills stay stagnant).
Now, here’s the catch. The book argues that not every practice is the same. I mentioned in the above paragraph the fact that you have to work on your weakness. This is the part that expert performers do at a regular basis. The book calls it deliberate practice.
This practice basically means that you don’t just practice the things you are already good at. You also target those that make you feel uncomfortable, skills that aren’t well-developed. Here’s an example they mentioned: Tiger Woods may only use the sand wedge only a couple times a year. Despite this, he practices with it as much as he can, trying to make that impossible shot on the sand.
He faces this scenario only a few times a year but that’s the reason he repeatedly tries to perfect the shot. He refines and perfects how to handle this situation in practice so that when he faces them in tournaments, he’s got it down to a tee. He doesn’t get enough “practice” of using the sand wedge in real tournaments so he does it in his own time. We only see him making the ‘impossible’ short but in reality, he’s missed and made that shot many times in practice.
In the world of expert performers, there is no such thing as over-preparedness. The elite performers do it more than you think.
That brings us to lesson #1: Talent is overrated, hard work isn’t.