Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why Talent Is Overrated

A weekend away lends the opportunity to read a good book. Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated came highly recommended to me. As someone without a notable athletic background or family, I’ve always wondered how much of success in sport is because of a genetically-enhanced engine of talent or simply a result of getting the work done.

The book presented a wealth of research debunking the talent myth. To my surprise, there is no scientific research to support some people are born with a talent for something. Not music, chess, business or sport. The only gift the person has is the ability to pour years of hard work, motivation and practice into something they are passionate about, passion that crosses the line into a powerful compulsion, an obsessive interest or a ‘rage to master’ the task at hand.

The author explains how their gift is simply the ability to do hard work. To practice and persist long after everyone else has given up or tried something else. Using Tiger Woods as an example, the author traces his ‘talent’ for golf back to an instructive father who took early charge of guiding Tiger in the direction of golf, providing the opportunities, practice and feedback for create a golfing success. It’s not so much that he had a talent for the sport, rather years of work specifically focused on learning the golf and a father that cultivated him to be one of the best.

From this, the author explains how we can use that approach to works towards our own level of high performance. Since there is no secret to success other than simply doing the work it takes, we can all reach high levels of performance. Why, then, don’t more people achieve this level? Because the work and practice required for achievement is not 'fun'. In the author’s words, “it’s difficult, it hurts.” Most of us are inclined to give up before the good, hard work really takes place allowing us to be shaped towards our success.

The author describes deliberate practice as one of the most important contributors to great performance. By definition, “deliberate practice is activity designed specifically to improve performance.” It is an activity that is highly demanding both physically and mentally. It forces you out of your comfort zone into your learning zone. If it is just a matter of practice and work, why, then, do so few people achieve the highest level of performance? Because it’s hard. It means failing – repeatedly – taking responsibility for this failure and seeing it as part of the process to get someplace else. As the author states:

If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and they would not distinguish the best from the rest. The reality is that deliberate practice is hard and can even be seen as good news. It means most people won’t do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.

The second part of the book discusses how you can achieve great performance. The first step as knowing where you want to go so you can plan the specific and immediate steps to get there. Next, the book covers how to practice once you’ve decided your goal. Most importantly, to practice directly (or deliberately) by working on the specific skills and techniques required for your goal. Note that this type of practice is often very…boring. Consider becoming a better swimmer: it often requires patience with many technique-focused sessions that may seem boring and slow. To that the author would say – exactly, if performance improvement was easy and fun then everyone would do it and everyone would be a success.

The author then discusses how to set goals. He notes, “the best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome.” They make specific, technique-oriented plans for their mastery of the process. Not only are the plans important but the author notes that ‘self-efficacy’ is a key ingredient to achieving a goal. Self efficacy is one’s belief in their ability to do the work and achieve. It’s believing all of that boring, hard work will not only pay off in the end but that you can do it too.

Colvin also discusses how self-observation is critical in achievement. He explains the process of 'metacognition' or the ability to step outside one’s self to watch what is happening in your own mind and ask how it’s going. Use of metacognition allows top performers to consistently stay on top of themselves and adapt. This skill is especially important in long course racing – think of how many obstacles you encounter and how often things change during Ironman. Athletes skilled in using metacognition to assess the situation and then respond appropriately may avoid the slippery slope of failure that tends to happen as a plan becomes derailed in Ironman.

The author explains how top performers reflect and evaluate their performance continually. Not only that but they look for errors and then determine the cause. What sets them apart from others is their acceptance that the cause is often their self. They actively search for specific elements of their own performance that created the error. In other words, they accept their own shortcomings and failure. They avoid blaming the error on weather, course conditions or other competitors. They keep their evaluation relevant to what they can control – themselves.

After making an evaluation and identifying errors that prevented them from reaching their goal, top achievers respond by adapting the way they act. They are then able to integrate this process of observation and evaluation, learn from it and apply it to their next performance. For example; after a race, the best athletes make an evaluation of what worked, what didn’t work. Beyond just making a list, they then adapt their training and racing so the next time they can apply what they’ve learned and get to the next level. They believe in their own effectiveness in this process and become reinforced by the smaller successes which eventually pave the way towards their bigger success.

Baby steps.

Lastly, the author talks about passion. To excel at something you must be passionate and driven enough to work hard. Working hard isn’t fun and often involves revealing parts of yourself or the process that are not enjoyable. However, if you are passionate about what you are doing you accept this as part of what needs to be done. Passion also helps achievers accept and move beyond the necessary consequence of working hard, failure. Consider professional figure skaters. Research has shown that the highest level of skaters spend more time on jumps they cannot do and, in turn, spend more time landing on their butt. Yet these are the jumps that win Olympic medals. As the author stated “landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.”

Colvin then considers why someone would continue to work towards something that has so much failure for so few rewards. In other words, why accept falling on your butt 20,000 times for one Olympic medal. The answer lies in drive. Exceptional performers have decided what drives them in life and made decisions based on that drive. Drive fuels one's passion for a goal. It's important to note that achievers are driven by their inside. They seek out the intrinsic reward of the process itself (the learning, the failing). They accept that the process or practice is not always fun and enjoyable. Sometimes it requires being defeated, falling or simply looking bad against everyone else. However, they find enjoyment in this process of learning and discovery, seeing both the good and the bad helping them to achieve their goal.

Since achievers are so focused on and driven by the process, they achieve what is called flow. Flow is a state where a person is so involved in a task they do not realize the passing of time. They master tasks because they are able to push aside distractions, focus intently on the task, learn and grow. Once they master a task, they seek out the next challenge. Top performers continually seek out opportunities to push past their current abilities even if it requires boring technical work, drills and failure. They view all of this as the price you pay for reaping the reward (top performance) and are intrinsically motivated by the process of getting there. As the author stated, “they get excited by new problems and find rewards not just in the solution but also in the process of solutions.” Simply put, what leads to great performance is an inner drive to be at your best.

The book closes by asking the reader to question themselves about what they really believe. What you really believe about great performance will eventually influence what you achieve. If you believe people – or athletes – are born with gifts to go win or excel, then you will find your own success an elusive mystery. Yet research does not support this idea of special talent or gifts. Great performance is not a mystery, it’s a result of carefully planned practice combined with drive. Those that get there are simply willing to do the work. The focused, passionate and deliberate work consisting of specific, at times tedious, technical steps required to improve. Top performers understand this improvement takes time and continual self-involvement through observation, evaluation and honesty. They are to engage themsleves in the process each time they practice no matter how boring, painful or difficult the task is. They are able to push past all of the failures and tedium because they are truly passionate about their goals. They have a ‘rage to master’, a compulsion to achieve, an inner drive to be at their best.

Overall I found the book highly relevant to experiences in multisport. Especially with age groupers, reaching the top of the ranks is less of a mystery than you may think. Of course there are genetic or physical indicators that leave some athletes better designed to produce fast performance or splits. But no amount of good physical design can substitute for the most basic of all – a lot of passion combined with painfully hard work. As you look ahead to 2009, think about how deliberate practice and passion might get you where you want to go.


Kim said...

This is so good I just copied and pasted it into an email for a newbit to the tri-world to take a look at as their "first" assignment! Thank you for the great post. This is something I talk about quite frequently in relation to myself as well. I'm not the most talented athlete, I never have been, but I am a very hard worker and I do what's on the schedule unless something deep inside tells me it could do more harm than good. Sounds like a good book. I might have to look into it!

Charisa said...

Great post - thanks for recapping the book!

Wes said...

I need this book. Thanks!!

TheOC said...

Talent is overrated, denial is underrated...

RB said...

I'm not sure I buy the theory at an elite level. Mozart, Michael Phelps, Eero Mantyranta...

It does bring up something that I read a while ago:

Age group winners are not faster than everyone else - they just slow down less.

E.L.F. said...

Interestingly the author used Mozart as a good example of hard work vs. talent. His father was a composer and from a very young age taught and guided Mozart to do the same. In fact, historians wonder if some of Mozart's compositions were really just his father's work with his name...anyways, it's an interesting argument for sure. I think we would all agree that Phelp's secret is really just pizza. Lots of it.

Amy Beth Kloner said...

I agree that work ethic and dedication is a huge aspect of our success-- as well as doing the RIGHT kind of training. But I also agree with the previous poster that you cannot deny physical talent, especially at the top of any sport. Now, that talent is worthless without the first part of the equation, BUT in looking at world champions and other elite athletes, I'd put $$ on their superior testing scores (VO2, power/weight, ect.). You can't excel without the drive; but in order to be at the TOP of the top, you also have to have an aresenal full of talent.
The take-away (at least what I took away) is that you shouldn't take up Putt-Putt just because you don't look like Michael Phelps. There's always room for improvement if you're willing to do the work.

E.L.F. said...

This is good talk.

I agree indicators like a high vo2max are necessary to become the top of the top. I also wonder if there are outliers. The author also acknowledges that top musicians committed to their instrument and study by age 8 so the bottom line is it takes time, design and hard work.

BreeWee said...

GREAT read, thanks for sharing! It was like cliff notes so I don't have to read the whole book!

JTri's said...

I think most people take comfort in believing that innate talent is what it takes to be great at something. Hearing that years of hard, boring work is what it takes is much less appealing.

Countless people have told me they could never run a half marathon or full marathon and I tell them all that with training and time, of course they could run that distance. My first run ever wasn't 10 miles long. But, the idea of starting slow and building up from there has a lot less mystique.

Tri-ing Rose said...

Wow! What an inspiring post. I completely agree with everything!

It definitely takes a whole lot more than just talent to suceed in something. You have to be very dedicated and passionate about what you are doing as well.

It sounds like a great book! I really want to read it now!

IronMatron said...

I also think there is a genetic/physical component to those successes that are at the level of Phelps. His body is an anomaly and perfectly designed to swim. However, Phelps is a special case, and I would argue that many of those who competed against Phelps at the Olympics arrived there through sheer hard work, belief, determination, and an early start. I know that as I watched the Olympic swimming I would constantly comment on how so-and-so just didn't look like a "swimmer" --and then said person would go on to break a record.

Kathy said...

Might have to go find this book and read it myself - some very good thoughts in there!! Something to ponder on those long rides... Thanks Liz

Amy Beth Kloner said...

Those poor kids... stuck with the same musical instrument since age 6 or 8? Shoot me.

Anyway, timely comment... If you don't subscribe to Barry Shepley's newsletter yet, you should. Just this week he included a pc about "When to focus on high performance sport." He cited German researcher Dr. Arne Gullich's findings... cliff notes: 1.) total # of hrs of DIFFERENT sports in pre-teens = greater success at int'l sport (ie. olympians generally did a large x-section of sports when young before specializing), and 2.) The later a child specializes, the better. Avg age of specialization was 15.5.
Perfect example is Simon Whitfield. Played every sport until training TRIs at 15.
Let me know and I'll fwd you the article if you don't get his emails. It's very interesting!

I think it's important to differentiate the audience when saying that talent is overrated, because for so many of us, we depend on the our ability to "dig deep" despite not being born a Phelps. That is the magical part... the fun part. The part that gets my ass out of bed in teh morning for masters when I realize that my swimming will likely never be world class (ha!) but I CAN make it a little better. For the vast majority of athletes who have individual goals, I absolutely agree. But in the VERY upper echelons, I wouldn't say that talent is overrated. You feelin' me?