Is Talent over-rated?

Posted in: Bloggery

At the prompting of one of my colleagues, I have just read Geoff Colvin’s book: “Talent is overrated”[i]  It is an interesting book, but the title really irritates me.  A better title would be “Real talent is rarely innate – it is built”.

This is much more a book about how talent is developed, and some important underlying disciplines (or talents!).  It is not a book about the over-rating of talent.

Key messages in the book are:

  • Most talented people simply work harder and longer, especially as children and students, than others. Examples discussed include Mozart, Tiger Woods, and some high profile business leaders.
  • Parental influence is significant.
  • Superior intelligence and memory can be taught/ developed.
  • Harder work, and for longer periods, in practice is critical.  The “practice” should focus on specific needs, and for top performers is usually done alone.  (Self- discipline?)
  • Colvin gives this a label: “Deliberate Practice”.  It is aimed at improving performance in a specific domain, and this seems to be the critical behavioural discipline.  Deliberate practice is “designed”, repeated a lot, and involves continuous feedback.  It is highly demanding, and it is not fun.
  • Deliberate practice heightens perceptions, improves understanding of key indicators, requires looking ahead, involves accumulating more knowledge, remembering more (and developing superior structures in which to organize data to be remembered) – and modifies the brain physically to strengthen memory and knowledge in a field.
  • The words “focus” and “diligence” come to mind in a number of the author’s examples (eg Benjamin Franklin on improving his writing skills).
  • It is also critical to “know where you want to go” and to seek out mentors. Intrinsic motivation (to excel) is very important, and is often associated with creativity.
  • Motivation can become intrinsic after a period of “forced” practice and parental influence.  Once ability is lifted with practice and the results experienced in individual children, the foundation for intrinsic motivation is laid.  There are then multiplier effects and feedback loops to strengthen it with continuing deliberate practice.
  • The author acknowledges the importance of what you believe and what you want.  (This  points to  the importance of self-esteem, and ambition.)
  • Luck, time and chance are of course factors.
  • Attitudes are important, as is self-belief, self-observation, self-evaluation, diagnosis of errors, and also belief that hard work will pay off.
  • Talented people build knowledge, construct mental models and keep revising them.

Returning to my irritation with the title:  I think the book provides terrific insights about some quite specific competencies (or talents) lying underneath conventional and admired skills.  We should go beyond conventional skills, when recruiting or identifying high potential people, and look for

  • How they learn
  • What they practice and how they practice
  • Self-esteem, self-insight
  • Where they see themselves in the future: what they would like to be doing in four or five years or so
  • Who they have sought out as mentors
  • Tenacity and self-discipline
  • A willingness to work on their skills and knowledge

These then are the real “talents” we should include in our assessments of individuals, alongside the more observable skills, qualifications and experience.


[i] “Talent is Overrated”, Geoff Colvin, Portfolio Penguin Books 2008