Talent is Overrated

After reading about Deliberate Practice on the Net, I was interested in the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. (As it turned out, I listened to the audiobook.)

(Don’t want to buy the whole book and read it? Read this excerpt by Geoff Colvin.)

This book explaines that excellent performance is the fruit of years and years of practice, not the result of inborn talents or inherated abilities.

A young man practising golf
Photo courtesy of capn madd matt

This is something we all know: you can only gain a certain level of mastery in one of the sports, arts or crafts after serious numbers of repetitive exercises, carefully chosen to add to your previous experience. Do you want to be an excellent computer programmer? It takes hours of training, attacking programming challenges, before you see any progress in your programming speed or insight.

Colvins arguments are compelling. He describes the lives of two people whom the public consider to be exceptionally talented: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Tiger Woods. If we study the life stories of these two men, we see that both have been practising hundreds of hours per year since they were young children. Both were trained by their fathers, who proved to be very good teachers. (See this article by Cal Newport about what makes teachers great.) These people do not have a God-given talent. There is no ‘golf’-gene or ‘composing’-gene, so why should the talent be innate?

But there is an extra dimension. The number of hours practised explain for amount the success of the performance, but it is not sufficient to explain for the people who perform exceptionally great. What is it in the way they practise that is different from the people that only perform ‘very good’ in a certain art or craft? It shows that the oustanding performers design their practice hours to be 200% effective, here is how:

The 5 aspects of Deliberate Practice

  1. Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance.
    The best practice is tailored to be exactly so hard that you have to do your very best to just be able to do it once or twice, but not too hard so that you get discouraged.
  2. Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot.
    The mind needs a lot of repetition to create new neural pathways that stay, or, so it turns out, pathways that are routed in strong, myelin-insulated fibers. So if you want to learn a new behavior, you have to repeat the practice over and over again, untill you can perform it sleeping.
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available.
    To enforce certain ways of working, you have to know if the task is performed right.
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally.
    The most effective practice is not recreational, but strenuous effort. Although I think this is a bit calvinistic aspect of the thinking about DP, I agree that to gain the most effect, the training has to be as challenging as possible, otherwise it could turn out to be a waste of time.
  5. It’s hard.
    Tough practice is not pleasant. Because of this, the research about why outstanding performers practice is interesting. (More about this maybe later.)

The study of Deliberate Practice started after the publication of the scientific article by Ericcson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer in 1992 titled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (pdf, 5.5 MB). This text is not easy to read and is written for a scientific audience.

Think of something in the future

Imagine
Photo by Alan Oliveira

If you think of an action you have to do, but you cannot access your context lists or you do not have a list for that context, it is possible to strongly visualize a moment in the future and think about the task that you have to remember to do in that moment.

Example: you are riding on your bicycle, headed to the railway station. You have 30 minutes of biking to do and cannot write anything down. Suddenly you remember that you have to go to the ATM at the station. Then it helps to visualize yourself parking your bike and then saying to you future-you: “ATM!”.

I have tried this several times, and it works like this: when the visualized moment actually arrives, you get a hunch that there was something that you should think about. When you pause for a moment and try to remember, the imprint from the past suddenly pops to your mind: “ATM!”

Reverse memory
This works like a reverse memory. A memory is a thought about something in the past, but the reverse memory is a thought we try to think about in the future.

I have learned that Leonardo Davinci also used pre-imagination in the creative process, so I am in very good company :-).