on 26 November 2008
I intended to write a review of Malcolm Galdwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success but I came across this book and I was surprised to find I like this book more. The book not only debugs the talent myth, the believe that talent is a dominant factor in high achievement (which Gladwell has done too in several publications). It also operationalizes the concept of deliberate practice. This concept was introduced by Anders Ericsson, a leading researcher in the field of expertise development. Colvin explains that deliberate practice can be described by these five characteristics:
1. It's designed specifically to improve performance
2. It can be repeated a lot
3. Feedback on results is continously available
4. It's highly demanding mentally
5. It isn't much fun
Deliberate practice is hard and not particularly enjoyable because it means you are focusing on improving areas in your performance that are not satisfactory. Thus, it stretches you. If you'll be able to do deliberate practice, you'll benefit by becoming better. Especially if you'll be able to keep it up for extremely long periods of time. Much research has shown that top performance in a wide array of fields is always based on an extreme amount of deliberate practice. It is hard to find a top performer in any field that has not been working extremely hard to get there. What does 'extremely hard' mean? Well, researchers Herbert Simon and Allen Newel used to say that you need at least 10 years before reaching top performance. Now, researchers have refined their estimate, saying coming up with a figure of 10000 hours. An interesting thing about deliberate practice is that its effect is cumulative. You can compare it with a road you're traveling on. Any distance you have travelled on that road counts. So, if you have started at an early age, this will lead to an advantage over someone who started later.
The book is written by a journalist, not a scholar. And it is well written and the journalist has done a good job in doing his homework. It is full of relevant references to research. It deals with the subject matter in a nuanced and informative way. Overall, it is very convincing.
If I had a say, I'd change two things in the second edition of this book. First, I'd change one section in chapter 1 in which the author talks about the abundance of financial resources. It seems a bit odd to read about that now, when this major economic crisis is hitting us. Second, I'd mention the work by Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The authors remarks in the last chapter refer so clealry to her body of research. In such a well documented book as this is, this is an omission. One last comment: I would have liked this title better for this book: DELIBERATE PRACTICE.
CONCLUSION: a terrific and thought provoking book. I am glad I have read this. It triggers many thoughts and invites you to take action.
Author Geoff Colvin rejects the popular notion that the genius of a Tiger Woods, a Mozart or a Warren Buffett is inborn uniquely to only a few individuals. He cites research that refutes the value of precocious, innate ability and he provides numerous examples of the intensely hard work that high achievement demands. Best performers' intense, "deliberate practice" is based on clear objectives, thorough analysis, sharp feedback, and layered, systematic work. getAbstract finds that Colvin makes his case clearly and convincingly. He shows readers how to use hard work and deliberate practice to improve their creative achievements, their work and their companies. The author's argument about the true nature of genius is very engaging, but, in the end, he makes it clear that the requirements of extraordinary achievement remain so stringent that society, after all, turns out to have very few geniuses. Colvin admits that the severe demands of true, deliberate practice are so painful that only a few people master it, but he also argues that you can benefit from understanding the nature of great performance. Perhaps, he says, the real gift of genius is the capacity for determined practice. You can improve your ability to create and innovate once you accept that even talent isn't a free ticket to great performance. It takes work.
on 19 August 2010
The content of this fantastic, it shows how top performers have a certain set of conditions and methods of practice that allow them to improve and outperform their peers. Colvin talks about the concept of deliberate practice, which is a very specific way of developing your abilities.
If there is a problem, it is because it falls between 2 stools. It is quite entertaining but a singular topic is never engrossing enough to make it as enjoyable as a great popular science book such as Blink or Freakonomics, nor is the subject as complex or as thought provoking as something like the Black Swan.
This could lead the book down a more self improvement orientated route, however, Colvin doesn't really throw himself into this. He sets out observations about elite performers but not once does he talk to you enthusiastically about how this could affect your life. He does set out all the ingredients of deliberate practice but this is spread over about 100 pages of the book so if you wanted a cut out and keep framework to deliberate practice then you will have to fish through these and make it yourself.
Being editor of fortune magazine, he does dedicate a few chapters to how businesses can benefit from deliberate practice, and maybe this is the point of the book, however if you are not concerned about this then skip these chapters, the book is still very readable for a non business person.
I have given it 4 stars for a reason, despite its shortcomings. The understanding of the content of this book is vital to anyone who wants to become exceptional in any field, the fact that it is not quite presented in the ideal format is of little consequence.
It is readable, it is quite entertaining but more importantly, if you apply the principles in this book it could be life changing.
Colvin set out to answer this question: "What does great performance require?" In this volume, he shares several insights generated by hundreds of research studies whose major conclusions offer what seem to be several counterintuitive perspectives on what is frequently referred to as "talent." (See Pages 6-7.) In this context, I am reminded of Thomas Edison's observation that "vision without execution is hallucination." If Colvin were asked to paraphrase that to indicate his own purposes in this book, my guess (only a guess) is that his response would be, "Talent without deliberate practice is latent" and agrees with Darrell Royal that "potential" means "you ain't done it yet." In other words, there would be no great performances in any field (e.g. business, theatre, dance, symphonic music, athletics, science, mathematics, entertainment, exploration) without those who have, through deliberate practice developed the requisite abilities.
It occurs to me that, however different they may be in almost all other respects, athletes such as Cynthia Cooper, Roger Federer, Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Lorena Ochoa, Candace Parker, Michael Phelps, Vijay Singh, and Tiger Woods "make it look so easy" in competition because their preparation is so focused, rigorous, and thorough. Obviously, they do not win every game, match, tournament, etc. Colvin's point (and I agree) is that all great performers "make it look so easy" because of their commitment to deliberate practice, often for several years before their first victory. In fact, Colvin cites a "ten-year rule" widely endorsed in chess circles (attributed to Herbert Simon and William Chase) that "no one seemed to reach the top ranks of chess players without a decade or so of intensive study, and some required much more time." The same could also be said of "overnight sensations" who struggled for years to prepare for their "big break" on Broadway or in Hollywood.
Colvin duly acknowledges that deliberate practice "is a large concept, and to say that it explains everything would be simplistic and reductive." Colvin goes on to say, "Critical questions immediately present themselves: What exactly needs to be practiced? Precisely how? Which specific skills or other assets must be acquired? The research has revealed answers that generalize quite well across a wide range of fields." Even after committing all of my time and attention to several years of deliberate practice, under the direct supervision of the best instructor (e.g. Hank Haney, Butch Harman, or David Leadbetter) I probably could not reduce my handicap to zero but I could lower it under those conditions. Colvin's insights offer a reassurance that almost anyone's performance can be improved, sometimes substantially, even if it isn't world-class. Talent is overrated if it is perceived to be the most important factor. It isn't. In fact, talent does not exist unless and until it is developed...and the only way to develop it is (you guessed it) with deliberate practice. When Ben Hogan was asked the "secret" to playing great golf, he replied, "It's in the dirt."
Others have their reasons for thinking so highly of this book. Here are three of mine. First, Colvin's observations and suggestions are research-driven rather than based almost entirely on theories developed in isolation from real-world phenomena. He commits sufficient attention to identifying the core components of great performance but focuses most of his narrative to explaining how almost anyone can improve her or his own performance. He reveals himself to be both an empiricist as he shares what he has observed and experienced and a pragmatist who is curious to know what works, what doesn't, and why. I also appreciate Colvin's repudiation of the most common misconceptions about the various dimensions of talent. For example, that "is innate; you're born with it, and if you're not born with it, you can't acquire it." Many people still believe that Mozart was born with so much talent that he required very little (if any) development. In fact, according to Alex Ross, "Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard" as did all others discussed, including Jack Welch, David Ogilvy, Warren Buffett, Robert Rubin, Jerry Rice, Chris Rock, and Benjamin Franklin. Some were prodigies but most were late-bloomers and each followed a significantly different process of development. About all they shared in common is their commitment to continuous self-improvement through deliberate practice.
Here's another reason I hold this book in such high regard. Throughout his narrative, Colvin inserts clusters of insights and recommendations that literally anyone can consider and then act upon to improve her or his individual performance as well as helping to improve the performance of a team of which she or he is a member. For example:
1. Attributes of deliberate practice (Pages 66-72)
2. What top performers perceive that others do not notice (Pages 89-94)
3. Benefits of having a "rich mental model"(Pages 123-124)
4. Rules for peak performance that "elite" organizations follow (Pages 128-136)
5. Misconceptions about innovation and creativity (Pages 149-151)
6. How innovators become great (Pages 159-161)
7. How to make organizations innovative (Pages 162-166)
8. What homes can teach organizations (Pages 172-175)
9. The "drivers" of great performance (Pages 187-193)
10. How some organizations "blow it" (Pages 194-198)
Corbin provides a wealth of research-driven information that he has rigorously examined and he also draws upon his own extensive and direct experience with all manner of organizations and their C-level executives. Throughout his narrative, with great skill, he sustains a personal rapport with his reader. It is therefore appropriate that, in the final chapter, he invokes direct address and poses a series of questions. "What would cause you to do the enormous work necessary to be a top-performing CEO, Wall Street trader, jazz, pianist, courtroom lawyer, or anything else? Would anything? The answer depends on your answers to two basic questions: What do you really want? And what do you really believe? What you want - really want - is fundamental because deliberate practice is a heavy investment." Corbin has provided all the evidence anyone needs to answer those two questions that, in fact, serve as a challenge.
Colvin leaves no doubt that by understanding how a few become great, anyone can become better...and that includes his reader. This reader is now convinced that talent is a process that "grows," not a pre-determined set of skills. Also, that deliberate practice "hurts but it works." Long ago, Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." It would be "tragically constraining," Colvin asserts, for anyone to lack sufficient self-confidence because "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 to everyone."
on 7 March 2009
This is a well written and accessible book. I found it compelling reading and finished it in a few sittings. The main tenet of the book revolves around the Nature vs Nurture debate and there is no doubt that this book is on the side of Nurture. It debunks very effectively the myth of innate talent and lays out the argument that the route to World class performance is through deliberate practice. I, like most of us, am all too quick to blame my inability to master a musical instrument or an artistic pastime on my lack of talent. This book argues that with deliberate practice, this mastery could be within reach. It wouldn't be easy, but neither is it impossible.
It is critical to understand what is meant by "deliberate practice" as I suspect for many of us this will be a key learning. Deliberate practice is an activity designed to specifically improve performance, often with a teacher's help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it highly demanding mentally; and it isn't much fun. There are great examples of what it is NOT and I can empathize with much of the anecdotal comments from my years of trying to master playing the drums. Understanding how to design deliberate practice is clearly key.
The book covers how this can impact organisations as well as individuals. Chapter 9 covers innovation and how deliberate practice can impact the creative process.
As the previous reviewer has commented, some of the material covered in this book also gets a mention in Malcolm Gladwell's latest book (Outliers), however, I found this book more interesting and definitely more practical. It leads the reader to a conclusion as well as providing practical ideas about how to improve your own and your company's performance.
But probably best of all, I found it inspiring and upbeat. Great reading. Highly recommended.
on 15 November 2009
What a fabulous book finally discarding the myth that talent is the most important factor in success. I totally agree that talent is simply overrated. If it was all about talent, then Michael Jordan would have made the varsity team in high school. So what separates the great performers from the rest? The author argues that it is "deliberate practice," which is not what most of us think of as practice. Deliberate practice is extremely demanding and is not fun at all. It focuses on continuous improvement and it is hard and it hurts. It challenges current skills rather than reinforcing the old habits.
When certain people achieve high success, the general public might see it as "instant success," but the authors say that it usually takes a decade of deliberate practice. From my experience, the only people who believe that talent is the key are the ones who do not find much success in anything. The ones that are successful almost always say that talent had nothing to do with it. This is a great book, and I appreciate how complete the author's research is.
- Mariusz Skonieczny, author of Why Are We So Clueless about the Stock Market? Learn how to invest your money, how to pick stocks, and how to make money in the stock market