Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talent is Overrated - Geoff Colvin

Subtitled: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. The book is well researched and presents compelling data for the case against the concept of innate talent. Toward the end of the book Colvin addresses the possibility that there are genes for things like intrinsic motivation; but at its most basic level, his theory suggests that high achievers reach astonishing heights in whatever they do because they work very hard at it in a highly specific way.

Colvin looks at many disciplines including music, athletics, chess and business, and takes on case studies involving Mozart, Tiger Wood and Jerry Rice, The Polgar Sisters, and Jack Welch among many others. In each instance research debunks the myth that talent accounts for accomplishment, and that achievement is somehow effortless if "talent" is what you are born with. Instead, these studies show how "deliberate practice" - and a lot of it - makes the difference in developing extraordinary skills.

Careful research they conducted also illustrates how the amount of actual time spent in such deliberate practice creates a cumulative effect, for which there appears to be no real short cut. It takes an artist about 10 years of intensive training and practice to turn out something that is considered really good. It doesn't matter whether you start your training at the age of 3 or the age of 20, there is still a requisite amount of highly specific practice you must do to get beyond good to reach great.

The book does point out that as we get older we end up behind the curve in our efforts if we didn't begin early enough. Younger people are coming up who've put in the time and practice and we aren't going to "catch up" to them in the number of hours they've invested versus what we are now investing.

In the latter part of the book, Colvin talks about these principles in relationship to companies. He really looks quite closely at companies like GE and how they consistently turn out so many high performers in business. He concludes that some of it is the culture and how that culture lends itself to developing individual performance. In a chapter entitled "Where Does Passion Come From?" there is a section headed "How Organizations Blow It." Here is the first paragraph:

It must be noted that, on this subject, as with the other findings on great performance, most organizations seem to be managed brilliantly for preventing people from performing at high levels. Since intrinsic drives are strongest, people will work most passionately and effectively on projects they choose for themselves. How many companies allow that? A few do, as noted in the previous chapter, and those companies have produced outstanding results. Yet most other companies steadfastly refuse to learn from them. Executives may protest that they have a business to manage and can't let employees run around working on who-knows-what. Fine; but those executives mustn't complain when their company's ideas are no better than the competition's. Nor should they claim to be mystified when employees lack passion and engagement.

Amen to that. I found a brilliant solution to this dilemma myself: I simply quit my job, pursued my vision and passion, and now I sell what I have to offer back to the company that I left. It actually works out pretty well - although my own perception is that I give twice as much as I get. But I wouldn't settle for less than pursuing what I believe to be strategically important to the future of the real estate industry and the people in it. It's disappointing that there are people who regularly settle for less. In fact, quite a lot of them.

I loved this book and highly recommend it! There is no time like the present, and no better time than NOW to be the person we can still become. It's really a matter of working harder as well as smarter on the skills we need in order to be high performers in a world where "experience" gets outdated very quickly. It's worth taking the time to read this book. Being great at what we do is not out of our reach.

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