Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Talent vs. Deliberate Practice

I just listened to a fascinating talk by Geoff Colvin at RSA. He's the author of Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. He discusses phenoms like Tiger Woods, Gary Kasparov and Mozart, and how they got to be who they are/were. There's evidently a lot of research on this, as well on what makes average people good at certain things. What Colvin puts it down to is "deliberate practice". But this isn't your normal practice.

Deliberate practice involves two aspects. First is the ability to force oneself to practice. Doing something you don't like is a bummer, doing something you like is fun. Being able to make yourself do something for hours on end, day in, day out, that's what makes Tiger Woods. As well, there has to be a goal to the practice. Colvin discusses the unpleasantness of failing at figure skating for this example. Messing up a jump in figure skating involve you landing on your tush on hard, cold ice. But great figure skaters practice the jumps they can't do. They keep hitting that ice until they get it down. Mediocre figure skaters are ones who only practice the jumps they can do. The lesson here is to aim just beyond your capabilities, at a place that's just outside your comfort zone, but not so far out that you get discouraged and give up hope.

While a lot of time is spent focusing on people at the top of their game, Colvin also talks about more mundane jobs. Like auditors. He discusses how, for most people, they eventually level off at some point, such that an auditor that has been doing the job for five years is about as good as an auditor that has been around for decades. They both have roughly the same ability to spot fraud in a company's books.

In addition, Colving discusses luck and time. One reason Tiger Woods is so great is that he's been doing his deliberate practice since he was 2. By the time he won his first Masters, he was 21. That meant he'd had 19 years of practice. Jack Nicklaus had about 13, and Arnold Palmer had 19 also, but they started golfing at 10 and 7, respectively, meaning they achieved things later in their lives. Tiger also had the luck to be born to his father, who was driven himself. Mozart's father was a noted composer and teacher, who had vowed to bring up his son to be a musician and composer.

A lot of this discussion was about business, but there are lots of possibilities when thinking about education, or when thinking about learning something yourself, and how to plan for success. Anyway, go have a listen and see what you think.

If nothing else, I'd recommend the RSA Events and Lectures to people interested in hearing new and different opinions.

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