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Is talent overrated?

Monday, 14 February 2011 | By Jack Delosa

As anyone who has started up a business will tell you, going it alone usually involves a moment of inspiration followed by plenty of perspiration. But are some entrepreneurs naturally more gifted than others?

The book Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, analyses great performers from all fields and examines how much of a part talent played in their success.


In examining the greats, the book highlights that very few of them were born with any real degree of talent.


For example, Mozart was born to a father who was a professional music composer and an expert in teaching music, particularly to young men.


Tiger Woods was born to a professional golfer who also studied the most effective strategies for training young men. Before Tiger could walk, his father would take him to the garage, sit him in his high chair and start to hit golf balls in to a net as the young boy looked on, transfixed. "It was as if he was watching a movie," Tiger's father said.


The premise of the book is that talent, a natural aptitude in a specific field, does exist, yet when it comes to being great in a particular field, it is irrelevant.


So what makes all the difference?


Francis Galton, who authored the 1869 book Hereditary Genius, coined the term "nature versus nurture".


Galton argued that people had innate limits to what they could achieve in life. Regardless of the work they put in, he contended, they would never break past these predetermined boundaries.


According to Galton, budding entrepreneurs should "find true moral repose in an honest conviction that he is engaged in as much good work as his nature rendered him capable of performing." In other words, give up and be content.


This explains a lot of the thought patterns in our culture that surround great performers and the notion that they operate at an unattainable level. You either have it or you don't.


Hundreds of studies have been done on the subject since Galton's book. They showed how employees' performance plateaued for years, seemingly hitting their "rigidly determinate natural limits", only to a see a consistent improvement in performance after new incentives were offered.


In his now famous paper, 'The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance', scholar Anders Ericsson concludes that "the search for stable heritable characteristics that could predict or at least account for superior performance...has been surprisingly unsuccessful."


Which means that, following countless case studies, researchers have found no relationship between natural talent and great performance.


However, at the time of this paper, "natural talent" was still the favoured theory when it came to high achievers.


As the authors of the paper put it: "The conviction in the importance of talent appears to be based on the insufficiency of alternative hypothesis."


People believed in 'talent' because they didn't have an alternative. Until now.


Recent research indicates that the number one determinant when looking at the greats is what has become known as 'deliberate practice'.


This is not the same as saying 'experience matters'. Often people who have '20 years' experience' are found to be performing at a lesser standard to those that have been in a particular field for five years.


Experience alone does not make the difference. Practice alone will not make you great.


For example, you may go to the driving range and hit golf balls for an hour, going through the motions, making your way through the irons and eventually getting to the drivers.


However, if there isn't specific concentration and thought going into every stroke and it is simply a form of entertainment, this doesn't constitute deliberate practice.


The same applied to people that have been in the same industry for 20 years. If they haven't been constantly learning more, seeking feedback and bettering their approach, they may not have 20 years experience but rather one year's experience repeated twenty times.


Deliberate practice has been found to encompass five characteristics:


It is designed specifically to improve performance

The exercise often needs to be designed by a teacher or mentor that understands what your weaknesses are and what needs to be done to improve.


The activities need to be designed to stretch you and push you outside your comfort zone. Tiger Woods will drop a golf ball into a sand bunker, step on it, and then play the stroke. He will do that thousands of times until he is exhausted.


Tiger may only play that stroke a handful of times through his career, but when he comes to a tournament, he is well rehearsed in how to execute it.


It can be repeated a lot

Repetition counts. Repetition alone is not good enough, but when focusing on a particular skill-set with a clear outcome, there needs to be high repetition.


In business, this can be achieved through role-play and rehearsal. When preparing for a high stakes show in Madison Square Garden on New Years Eve, Chris Rock performed 18 dress rehearsal evenings in small clubs across America, perfecting his material with every laugh.


At the height of his career he is still forcing that repetition and immediate feedback before he performs on the main stage.


Feedback on results is continually available

In business, feedback is everywhere and often it comes in the form of failure; a proposal that didn't get through, a presentation that didn't hit, a deal which fell over.


Rather than looking at these experiences as failures, if we can examine what happened and take from it an understanding of what to do differently next time, there is our feedback. This is best done with a mentor or manager.


It is highly mentally demanding


Several studies have shown that four or five hours a day seems to be the most we can engage in deliberate practice. This is due to the mental exhaustion that accompanies it.


Even professional athletes that may be hitting more tennis balls in a day than most people do in a year report that at the end of the day it is the mental exhaustion, not the physical exhaustion, that is most obvious.


It isn't fun

Often, people can have a romantic notion of what it is to be an 'entrepreneur'. These notions don't usually make it past year one.


Doing what we're good at is enjoyable. However, when you take what you are good at, hone in on your weaknesses and repeat a deliberately designed exercise to the point of mental exhaustion, often it is not fun.


This is, of course, a good thing. If it were easy – everyone would be doing it.


The research highlights that when looking at business moguls such as Branson, Gates or Trump, we no longer have an excuse to write them off as being "on another level" or "unbelievably talented."


Admittedly these people may be on another level today but the studies show that they weren't born there. It was through hours, years and decades of deliberate practice that they were able to attain a level of performance somewhat resembling greatness.


As Colvin concludes, "great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and everyone."