Great performance is not reserved for a pre-ordained few

Deliberate Practice the Key


Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor at Large for Fortune Magazine, painstakingly dissected in his book Talent is Overrated enormous amounts of scientific research in the field of performance improvement and utilizes case studies of famous athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, Nobel Prize winners, scientists and prodigies to lay the foundation for his main thesis:  “the evidence shows also that by understanding how a few,  become great, anyone can become better.  Above all, what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few.  It is available to you and everyone”. So, what really separates world-class performers from everybody else?  Researchers identify the secret as ‘deliberate’ practice. This is  something that is not performed in our workplaces by most people, nor by the neurosurgeon at our local hospital nor by the scratch golfer at our country clubs.  Certainly, there are many of these stars who are clearly very good at what they do but they never manage to achieve greatness, as true masters in their field.  In case after case, Colvin recounts the studies of our greatest performers and how they reached the pinnacle of success through this ‘deliberate’ practice.   So practice makes perfect? No, or rather this is not the  complete message that Colvin wants to communicate. In explaining what deliberate practice is he is careful to explain what it is not.   Practice alone, does not make perfect. Simply repeating actions in an unstructured way ie Repetition, repetition and more repetition is not the answer. Instead, it consists of five basis elements:

• It’s specifically designed to improve performance.

• It must be repeated a lot where both the amount of repetition and the type of activity are carefully calculated.

• It requires continuous feedback by a teacher, coach or mentor.

• It must be highly demanding mentally.

• It isn’t (much) fun.

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to this deliberate practice. So, it encompasses activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

Colvin conjures up a golfing  image to describe what he means “Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.” Colvin writes ‘Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Understand that talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well.

British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, “The evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.” In short ‘There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice’. Vladimir Horowitz supposedly said, “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.”

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else-Geoff Colvin (ISBN 9781591842248),




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